Seemingly subtle decisions about headlines or images used in a domestic violence story can have a harmful impact on people involved and undermine more complex reporting.
Take a headline that says a man killed his wife because she burnt the toast or typed too loud. Even if the police cite that as a motive, it’s not appropriate or accurate to frame the story that way, explained two leading reporters who covered the topic at the Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Symposium last week.
“No, that’s not why he killed her – there was probably a pattern of violence that went back many years and culminated in this one moment,” said Melissa Jeltsen, an investigative reporter who covers domestic violence. “It’s important to look a little bit deeper and not just sort of parrot these claims.”
Jeltsen joined Marisa Kwiatkowski of USA Today, who led the reporting on the Larry Nasser gymnastics sex abuse scandal, to discuss how to cover domestic violence stories without relying on oversimplified stereotypes. The journalists also described how to approach stories on trauma and abuse with fairness and sensitivity.
Words and images matter
People reading articles about domestic violence may have their own experiences with trauma, and the language could be a trigger, Jeltsen said.
For example, when it comes to words like “victim” or “survivor,” it’s best to let people choose the vocabulary that best fits their situation. Some might not consider themselves a victim while others may not feel like a survivor. Take the time to ask them.
Whenever possible, avoid labels and focus on the facts, Kwiatkowski said. Instead of calling someone “an abuser” or “perpetrator,” acknowledge what they did in the story. Also be careful with words like “unharmed” in the absence of physical abuse, because someone can be abused in all kinds of ways, including emotional and verbal harm.
Images that accompany stories can also shape perceptions.
When Jeltsen covered domestic violence for HuffPost, she would struggle with the stock images that often turned up in keyword searches, such as a woman with a black eye cowering in a corner, or a man with a fist standing over her.
“These are really simplistic ideas about what domestic violence looks like,” she said.
If you can, use original photography, an illustration, or stock images that portray themes like isolation over physical violence.
Covering complex dynamics
When covering domestic violence stories, avoid simply echoing the police report, Kwiatkowski said. Seek additional information, such as whether there was a protective order in place.
If you’re interviewing neighbors, be mindful that domestic violence may not be visible from the outside. A neighbor who says everything seemed “fine and dandy” until one day the person in question finally snapped is likely oversimplifying the story.
“The neighbor is not an expert on the relationship,” Jeltsen said.
If you do include the neighbor’s comments, you could add context about how often people suffer in silence and shame. Or consider reframing your questions, asking the neighbor about the person who was killed instead of speculations on motive.
When an intimate partner is killed by an intimate partner, call it what it is: domestic violence homicide. Too often, Jeltsen sees articles that don’t mention until the very end that the woman had been dating the alleged murderer.
That relationship “should be in the first paragraph,” she said.
When writing an article, reporters should ask themselves hard questions about whether to include certain details. Are they important to the story or are they simply salacious? Details are valuable if they can convey a broader idea, such as how someone exerted control over their partner.
Jeltsen often uses descriptions in places where one word might not accurately convey the offense. For example, instead of “strangulation,” she might say “pressure was put on the neck, to the point where the person could no longer breathe and felt like they were drowning.”
Overcommunicate with sources
It’s hard to reach out to people who have recently lost someone, Jeltsen said. Start by acknowledging their pain, before explaining what you’re working on and why their voice is important.
If someone doesn’t want to talk immediately after an incident, invite them to have that conversation later, Kwiatkowski said.
With survivors of trauma, Kwiatkowski explains what she’s working on and how their story fits. She emphasized “overcommunicating,” explaining that she converses with sources before the interview, during the interview and prior to publication.
She also discusses their comfort level with being identified and what that means. Even if they choose a vague term like “California woman” or prefer to only use their first name, that doesn’t guarantee anonymity. Other details can identify someone, particularly among those familiar with the incident or case.
Jeltsen is similarly up front with her sources: “When people Google your name, this might be the first thing that comes up for the next 15 years. Are you OK with that? Because there’s nothing we will be able to do to fix this later on.”
She also makes sure they understand they’re not obliged to tell her anything and that they can take breaks whenever they need to.
Asking questions and fact-checking can trigger someone who has already experienced others casting doubt on their story. Reporters can explain that editors will ask these same questions, and that this kind of due diligence is a normal part of journalism. Similarly, explain why it’s necessary for reporters to contact the person accused of the crime.
Before publication, Kwiatkowski circles back with her sources again, explaining which details will be included. Sometimes, people might have inadvertently shared something private. Previewing the story in this way gives sources a chance to emotionally prepare and know what to expect when the article comes out.
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