Study shows reporting tends to focus on specific instances rather than the broader social issue.
In the days after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, American newspapers doubled their coverage of domestic violence and related issues. But a new study shows the case had relatively little long-term impact on the way domestic violence is covered.
Instead, experts say, legislation and social movements, such as the women's movement, are more likely to result in a long-term change in public attitudes and, as a result, news coverage.
The study, conducted by graduate students and faculty at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, examined coverage of domestic violence in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News from January 1990 to August 1997. They looked at 10,568 stories in all, conducting more detailed analyses on subsets of several hundred articles. The study is notable because of its scope and because it included stories in which domestic violence was discussed, even if the issue was not the main focus. Previous studies tended not to use a representative sample, instead focusing on a relatively small number of stories devoted to domestic violence.
The researchers found that after the initial burst of coverage, news reports on domestic violence declined. Although the newspapers continued to cover domestic violence more than they had before the O.J. Simpson trial, the number of stories devoted to the subject already had been increasing before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman and probably would have continued to do so.
"We were attributing it to ... a lot of legislation that went before Congress (in 1991) to protect women from violence," said Kimberly Maxwell, the study's lead author. "It wasn't just domestic violence, it had a lot to do with high-- profile stalking cases ... but domestic violence was a subset of that."
In particular, the Violence Against Women Act, introduced in Congress in 1991 and signed into law in October 1994 after the Simpson-- Goldman murders, seemed to have an impact, Maxwell said. Before the murders, journalists had started to veer away from reporting statistics and basic information and begun to look at some of the social inequities contributing to the problem. "I think there was already a trend, and the O.J. Simpson case exploded it," said Maxwell, who recently received her doctorate in communications. The Simpson case served as a catalyst for increasing coverage of social issues related to domestic violence, with activists using the murders and trial as vehicles for getting their perspective heard, she said.
But although more journalists are delving into social problems involving race, gender and imbalances of power, the study revealed a continued focus on individuals, either the batterer or the victim, as the cause of domestic violence. That focus allows readers to distance themselves from the problem.
"It's still like: those freaks over there," Maxwell explained. Later, she added, "We think that it is important to focus not merely on the individuals involved in the violence, but also to broaden the explanations that they provide for domestic violence by not merely focusing in the criminal aspects of the case. Specifically, reports could look at the social factors that allow the violence to occur. These factors include a society that may tacitly excuse violence in the home because it's a private matter or a legal system that doesn't prosecute domestic violence cases stringently... . It is the job of journalists not to simply produce sensational pieces that sell papers, but to also provide a service to their readers by informing them of larger social factors that affect not only domestic violence, but other issues such as public health, the educational system and the energy crisis."
Marian Meyers, author of "News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame," said the results of the Pennsylvania study are not surprising.
"The norm is that women tend to be blamed in news of domestic violence," said Meyers, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Women's Studies Institute at Georgia State University. She added that news stories tend to reflect the popular belief that women do something to provoke the violence or do not take appropriate action to stop it.
"It's not like there's a conspiracy (among reporters). ... It's just that that's how people think," Meyers said. And unfortunately, she said, "Female reporters report just like male reporters because they are socialized in the same way.
But Mia Consalvo, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said making the Simpson case the focal point of the study may have influenced the outcome.
"That case was so complex and dealt with such strong individual personalities that those factors may have prevented reporters from dealing with the issues on a broader level," said Consalvo, the former editor of the Journal of Communication Inquiry. "They were more concerned with O.J. and Nicole, rather than systemic causes."
Still, Consalvo said, the research was well done and the results support the findings of smaller, earlier studies.
"I think that journalists can learn some important things from this study," Consalvo said. "First, that although social issues are starting to crop up in news accounts of domestic violence, they need to appear more. This tends to go against some basic news routines and values ... but it should lead to greater understanding of these events."
Consalvo also noted that journalists who want to report differently often face a number of constraints: an expectation that their stories will focus on individuals, an expectation that they will tell "both" sides of a story where there may be multiple perspectives, a lack of resources that aid in covering stories in depth and a misunderstanding among reporters themselves about the causes of domestic violence.
Notably, the Pennsylvania study found that after the Simpson trial ended, The New York Times continued to do more in-depth stories about domestic violence. Maxwell attributed the results to the fact that The New York Times is recognized as the newspaper read by government officials and others with power. As a result, activists tend to target the paper for social issues stories, and "the reporters know they have a large national audience," making them more likely to write social issues stories, she said.
Agreeing with the study's results, Meyers said news reports about domestic violence improved to some degree during the Simpson trial. Because the story went on for a relatively long time, journalists were forced to seek new sources and look at the problem of domestic violence from different angles. As a result, more women's activists and minorities were able to make themselves heard in print, she said.
But, Meyers added, she was not surprised that the Pennsylvania study found that attention to social problems decreased after the Simpson trial ended. Just because reporters included activists' comments in stories doesn't mean they took them to heart, she said, noting that some journalists continue to believe domestic violence is just a problem between individuals.
In addition, Meyers said, journalists who did a good job of covering the Simpson trial may have been promoted or moved to other beats.
"Even if they were sensitized, they may not be the ones writing the day in, day out stories about violence against women," Meyers said.
Meyers and other experts say one of the keys to changing news coverage of violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, is educating future journalists about the problems and their roots.
Carolyn Byerly, an associate professor at Ithaca College, teaches units on covering domestic violence in several of her reporting classes. Most journalism students are not familiar with the women's movement, C. Everett Koop's campaign against domestic violence, the victims' rights movement or other initiatives that have shaped American laws and the way people discuss domestic violence, she said.
"Reporters need to know that history," Byerly said, noting that journalism textbooks do not discuss coverage of domestic violence or violence against minorities, such as gays and lesbians. Studying these problems and news coverage of them helps "put a new language of politics around sexual assault and domestic violence in the media" and makes journalism students more aware of the language used in their stories.
Education can have an immediate impact because many police and general assignment reporters are recent graduates. "The likelihood somebody is going to encounter a sexual assault or domestic violence story pretty early on in their career is pretty good," Byerly said.
The Pennsylvania study did not include smaller local newspapers, where young journalists are most likely to work. The researchers tried to include the Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper, Maxwell said, but they could not get a large enough sample from back issues to make valid comparisons.
Byerly said her study of news coverage of domestic violence in the local newspapers around Ithaca, N.Y., revealed that 90 percent of the mentions of domestic violence were in police reports. "There was very little analysis done of any of the crimes," she said and added, "They treat it as a crime, not a social problem."
Ellie Dixon, managing editor of the Caledonian-Record in St. Johnsbury, Vt., said her newspaper's coverage of domestic violence has evolved since 1993, when its court reporter pointed out that while editors pledged to cover everything that happened in court, they weren't publishing stories about the restraint orders issued in domestic violence cases. The editors agreed.
The deaths of five women from 1993 to 1995 increased the editors' resolve to do something to prevent more violence from happening.
"We began to think, `You know, if we write that that horrible guy is not supposed to be near her, and we print that because that's the order, the judicial order, and people see it in a small community like ours, and then they see Joe Doe go to visit Susie or going to her work place, they can holler,'" Dixon said.
Six to 12 orders are issued in an average month, Dixon said. The newspaper usually runs a monthly report that includes the names of the batterers and victims and summaries of each order's justification.
While victims do not like having their names published, Dixon said, several have said the stories resulted in offers of help from ministers, neighbors and other community members.
But the Caledonian-Record does not just cover domestic violence in its court reports. It also publishes editorials on the issue and in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the paper makes a special effort to write about programs for batterers and victims.
"What started out as routine court coverage because we want to make sure we cover everything, turned into a real cause, because we realize there is domestic violence," Dixon said. "There's a lot of it."
Michelle Johnson is a copy editor at The Advocate in Stanford, Conn.…