Situating an incident in the context of relationship abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV) is crucial in illustrating such violence as a social problem and not a private problem.
Refer to a relationship abuse-related homicide as an act of intimate partner violence instead of calling it a homicide or murder.
Ex. “In an act of intimate partner violence, John Smith killed his wife” instead of “John Smith killed his wife.”
Additionally, it is crucial to name the white supremacy, racism, and misogyny of the people choosing to commit relationship abuse, sexual violence, and racialized violence.
Ex. “There has been an increase of racist and misogynist people committing violence against Asian American women” instead of “There has been a rise in violence against Asian American women.”
Provide information such as statistics on the incidence of intimate partner violence (on a local, state, or national level) to situate a single incident in a broader social context of gender based violence.
Ex. Local: “the incident marks the fifth relationship abuse call Palo Alto police have responded to this month.”
Ex. State: “In 2008, there were 113 domestic violence homicides in California, according to the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center.”
Ex. National: “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, men will rape or commit intimate partner violence against one in four women.”
Promote awareness of the issue as well as options for those needing assistance
Provide the number of a local relationship abuse and/or sexual violence hotline or shelter for those who need assistance or who want to help a friend
Provide a link to a relationship abuse and sexual violence prevention agency for those who want to learn more
Create and maintain a list of resources that can be accessed in the newsroom or on newsroom servers with phone numbers and media contacts at local relationship abuse and sexual violence prevention agencies
Avoid using passive voice to describe relationship abuse and sexual violence
Ex. Instead of “the victim was attacked by their partner,” write “the victim’s partner attacked them”
Exercise discretion in using terms such as “allegedly”
Law enforcement and legal representatives rely on “allegedly” as a means of preserving impartiality; however, the term is overused in the media and often unnecessarily obfuscates the reality of an incidence of relationship abuse or sexual violence.
Ex. Instead of “the victim was allegedly attacked by her partner,” write “the victim told police her partner attacked her”
Leave superfluous descriptions of the victim(s) and their behaviors out of the story
Descriptions of a victim’s appearance or sexual history are often included in sexual violence stories inappropriately. Commenting that a victim was “wearing a short skirt” or “seen dancing provocatively with the accused” blames the victim for the perpetrator’s actions.
Discussing why the survivor stays with or goes back to the abuser is also irrelevant information that distracts from the perpetrator and implies that the victim is somehow complicit in the abuse.
Be careful that you do not use language that inadvertently blames the perpetrator’s choice to commit violence on a survivor’s gender identity.
See Avoiding Victim Blaming and Exercise to Illustrate Victim Blaming in Rape Cases for more information.
Relationship abuse and sexual assault are gendered issues.
Acknowledge that the majority of relationship abuse and sexual assault is committed by men against womxn. It is impossible to get to the root cause of the problem without maintaining a gendered analysis.
Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes does not minimize abuse experienced in LGBTQI+ relationships. Relationship abuse and sexual violence remain gendered issues within the LGBTQI+ community; gender is implicated in the construction of heterosexism and homophobia, which both contribute to abuse and act as barriers to survivors seeking help.
Gender inclusive language is more effective than gender neutral language. Gender neutrality is an important concept for service delivery (i.e. asking “has your partner hit you?” on a hotline). However, in the analysis of relationship abuse and sexual violence, a gendered analysis allows readers to identify and address the power dynamic in patriarchal society, and discuss topics such as toxic masculinity.
It is crucial to respect a survivors gender identity; always conduct research to confirm that you are using a survivor’s correct pronouns.
Provide context for how rape culture, toxic masculinity, and discrimination contribute to abusers feeling empowered to commit gender based violence against womxn, transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people.
Media coverage often includes information/statistics on how many womxn were raped or abused, without noting how many men raped or abused them. Include information on perpetrators as well.
Violence perpetrated by boys is often referred to by the media as “youth violence” while violence perpetrated by girls and gender-expansive youth is referred to as “girls’ violence.” Avoid these biases, name men’s violence against womxn and gender-based violence.
Ex. If we say “Mary was beaten,” it makes us focus on Mary and her actions, when we should be thinking about John and his decision to abuse. “John beat Mary” is more effective because it draws attention to John, who has perpetrated the act, and forces us to think about the root of the problem.
Ex. When we say “violence against women” we continue to try to figure out what is wrong with the women. When we say “men’s violence against womxn,” or “violence committed by someone in an LGBTQI+ relationship” we start to look at specifically what has the perpetrator done to the survivor.
This sort of reframing is important when it comes to statistics about relationship abuse and sexual violence.
- Avoid writing this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, at least 1 in 3 women will experience relationship abuse or sexual assault in her lifetime.” (World Health Organization, 2013)
- Start writing this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, a man will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least 1 in 3 women.” (World Health Organization, 2013)
- Avoid writing this: “80% of transgender respondents stated that they had experienced emotionally, sexually, or physically abusive behavior by a partner or ex-partner.” (Scottish Transgender Alliance, 2o10)
- Start writing this: “Partners, or ex-partners, have committed emotional, sexual, or physical abuse against 80% of transgender respondents.” (Scottish Transgender Alliance, 2010)
- See Why Framing Language Matters for more stat examples and see Jackson Katz’ Language Matters: Violence Against Women for more information and a good exercise.
Become familiar with and avoid stereotypes.
Do not portray the victim as “asking for it” or deserving of abuse. Abuse is a choice made the perpetrator; no one can provoke someone into being abusive.
Do not portray the perpetrator as a typical, “nice guy” who snapped. Relationship abuse is a choice made by the perpetrator. It is not the result of someone “snapping,” nor is it a “crime of passion.” These stereotypes remove accountability from the perpetrator and remove the incident of IPV from the greater context of a pattern of abuse.
Do not portray the perpetrator as a “monster” or mentally ill. Research indicates that domestic violence is not caused by mental illness.
Do not perpetuate the myth that alcohol or abuse causes someone to be abusive. Research indicates that when you fix the alcohol or drug problem, the perpetrator continues to be abusive. Many people drink alcohol and do drugs; most people do not choose to be abusive.
Do not use quotes that perpetuate stereotypes.
Ex. If quoting a neighbor or friend as saying “he seemed like a normal guy” is unavoidable, balance it with a quote from another source (Anti-domestic violence advocate) such as, “In reality, many men who perpetrate domestic violence are ‘normal guys’. Many men convicted of relationship abuse are highly regarded in their communities, at work or in other areas of life, but choose to be abusive toward their intimate partners.”
See Frequently Asked Questions for more information.
Recognize and explain that asking, “Why didn’t they leave?” places responsibility on the victim/survivor when the perpetrator should be held accountable for abuse instead. Explain that leaving is often the most dangerous time.
Become familiar with barriers to leaving abusive relationships. These include:
Fear of retaliation/death
Lack of housing, child care, employment opportunities, support from friends/family, or legal resources
Pressure from family or the community (Ex. Pressure “to keep the family together”)
See Frequently Asked Questions for more information.
Approach relationship abuse as you would any other crime when consulting law enforcement sources. Consider the following:
Did the perpetrator have a history of abusive behavior?
What is the cost to the community of abuse? (Analogous to asking about damages)
Why is rape culture so accepted in our society?
Seek sources beyond law enforcement and neighbors
Anti-intimate partner violence advocates are legitimate sources that can supplement and balance comments from law enforcement and criminal justice sources
If a quote or statement is confusing or unclear, ask an anti-intimate partner violence expert to clarify
Follow up on the consequences for the perpetrator
If the perpetrator is arrested, what charges or sentence do they face?
Note if there is racial discrimination in the implementation of justice
If a case does not move to trial, explain why. For example, explain that just because something is “unfounded” does not mean it is a “false accusation” or that it didn’t happen. Unfounded means that there wasn’t the right type of evidence, or that there were legal loopholes that prevented a case from moving forward.
Exchange comments on coverage—-how could a story be rewritten to exclude a stereotype, for example?
Create a listserv for media professionals and share resources, statistics, suggestions, etc.
Develop an understanding of:
“Distracted by Drama: How California Newspapers Portray Intimate Partner Violence”
Berkeley Media Studies Group, 2003.
“Covering Domestic Violence: A Guide for Journalists and Other Media Professionals”
Kelly Starr, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2008.
News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame
Marian Meyers, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1997.
“Reporting on Violence: New Ideas for Television, Print and Web”
Jane Ellen Stevens and Lori Dorfman, Berkeley Media Studies Group, 2001.
Developed by Kristen Barta as a project of the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.