Covering Domestic Violence: How the O.J. Simpson Case Shaped Reporting of Domestic Violence in the News Media

Article excerpt

This article examines how the Simpson case affected newspaper coverage of domestic violence. We analyzed the frequency with which domestic violence was covered and the content of that coverage in the New York Times, the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. As expected, the number of non-Simpson domestic violence stories increased immediately after the event but declined in the majority of newspapers afterwards. The hypothesis that domestic violence story coverage would shift from incident focused to socially focused reporting was not generally supported. Social coverage was present across all domestic violence stories before the Simpson event, and with only minor variations, the overall coverage content did not change.

Introduction

Despite the fact that domestic violence is not a recent phenomenon,1 the extent to which it is perceived to be a public issue varies over time.2 We assume that media coverage is a major determinant of that variation. The double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman was a major news story for nearly eighteen months from June 1994 through December 1995. Because celebrity stories demonstrate that domestic violence is a real-world problem that may affect anyone,3 we wanted to see if the O.J. Simpson case exemplified how celebrity involvement may catapult a social problem into the public eye and increase the press' coverage of the issue, as with AIDS and the pesticide alar.4

The Simpson case was steeped in conflict, one of the fundamental criteria for determining whether a story is newsworthy.5 In selecting the Simpson case as an example of celebrity involvement in domestic violence, we cannot ignore the role that race played in the story's coverage. On one level, the Simpson story questioned national ideals of power, privilege, and success by revealing that domestic violence cuts across class lines and occurs in the "best families."6 On another level, the vicious crime aligned Simpson with the prevailing image of Black men in the media as dangerous criminals7 and evil men.8 These racial stereotypes were further exploited, because Nicole Simpson was an upper-class White woman, a member of a socially prominent group that typically receives more media coverage than poor or Black victims of domestic violence.9 While this study does not specifically address the issue of race, we acknowledge the importance it held in the Simpson case.

Examining domestic violence newspaper coverage, we suspected that reporting would move away from a narrow incident focus to a broader social focus. That is away from the specifics of a domestic violence incident toward addressing the social aspects of the issue. Rather than detailing how a woman was murdered by her husband, an article would discuss legislation that seeks tougher punishment for abusers. To accomplish this change in reporting we believed two major forces to be at work. First, the insatiable need of newspapers for fresh material around old stories would prompt journalists to consider-new ways of reporting the story. Consequently, articles about the social issues of domestic violence would bea natural complement to the casespecific stories. Secondly, because the story ran for so long, it provided an opportunity for the domestic violence community to organize around this issue. They could affect the news through their own actions (e.g., judicial action protests or opening hotlines), and the Simpson case could provide a hook around which reporters would frame the stories. Subsequently, an increase in coverage could be expected as anti-domestic violence campaigners learned how to work with reporters looking for new angles, related stories, or experts to quote,10 providing journalists with information subsidies.11

A core question was whether the coverage of the Simpson incident had any long-term effect on the media portrayal of domestic violence. To answer this, we needed to examine the reporting itself. …