An Analysis of Media Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence and Homicide

By Meyer, Emily; Post, Lori | Media Report to Women, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of Media Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence and Homicide


Meyer, Emily, Post, Lori, Media Report to Women


Crime is a societal-level problem that is typically reported to the public by the mass media. A durable news commodity (Garofalo, 1981; Surette, 2010), people often get their first glimpse of local, state, and nationwide criminal events in the form of newspaper columns, magazine reports, and television shows (Sasson, 1995). Regarding intimate partner violence (IPV) and homicide (IPH), journalists routinely report these crimes as incident-specific outcomes of relationship conflict or other individual -level problems (Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Carlyle, Slater, & Chakroff, 2008; Maxwell, Huxford, Borum, & Hornik, 2000; Meyer & Post, in press). Crime reporting heavily relies on official sources, including feedback from law enforcement officials and attorneys (Bullock, 2008). It covers the 'what' (cultural context), 'who' (social context), 'where' (geographical context), and 'when' (temporal context) of an act (Koch, 1990). F

Framing - or how the media report on a given topic - defines problems, diagnoses causes, makes moral judgments, and suggests remedies (Entman, 1993). Research has identified two predominant types of media frames in newspaper reporting: episodic and thematic. Episodic frames highlight a singular incident, whereas thematic frames explore contextual issues surrounding a given social problem or criminal act (Surette, 2010). Both types have the potential to influence public opinion; however, recent evidence suggests that episodic frames have a greater influence on audience opinion when the topic elicits strong emotional reactions, as is the case of IPV and IPH (Aaree, 2011).

This places the journalist in a pivotal position of influence - the overuse of an episodic style (i.e., divorce, infidelity, or perpetrator's mental health/substance use problems led to homicide) can affect how people view victims and perpetrators of IPV yet does not necessarily guarantee an accurate reflection of reality. In fact, the proposed explanations offered by the mass media are often discrepant with social and epidemiological research (Carlyle et al., 2008).

Take, for example, the prevalence of divorce. The probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce is 20% in the first five years, 33% in the first ten years, and 43% in the first fifteen years (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001). Approximately 50% of children in the United States will experience their parents' divorce before they reach 18 years of age (Gullotta & Blau, 2008), so nearly half of all married parents seek legal counsel to determine custody arrangements for their minor children. The prevalence of infidelity, or engaging in extramarital sex during one's lifetime, is 19% for women and 34% for men (Wiederman, 1997). Looking at epidemiological data associated with mental health and substance use problems, the lifetime prevalence of alcohol abuse is 4.7% and dependence is 3.8% (Hasin, Stinson, Ogburn, & Grant, 2007). The lifetime prevalence of drug abuse is 7.7% and dependence is 2.6% (Compton, Thomas, Stinson, & Grant, 2007). Approximately half the U.S. population meets criteria for one or more of the most commonly occurring DSM-IV mental disorders in their lifetime and roughly one fourth meets criteria in the previous year (Kessler & Wang, 2008). If these issues do in fact trigger intimate partner violence-related homicides, we would expect to see a much higher rate of this crime occurring after divorce, separation, and in response to other personal issues. However, this is not the case, and epidemiological data do not support the explanations posited by the mass media (Carlyle et al., 2008).

To date there have been several quantitative investigations of newspaper reporting of IPV-related crimes, including the types of frames and information used to construct a story. However, a qualitative analysis of the explicit causes provided by the mass media is still lacking. Therefore, this study investigates the reported causes of collateral intimate partner homicide (CIPH) in Michigan between 1990 and 2007. …

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