Covering Domestic Violence

By Johnson, Michelle | The Quill, October/November 2000 | Go to article overview

Covering Domestic Violence

Johnson, Michelle, The Quill

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. …

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