Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Media Reporting about Domestic Violence: What’s Missing?

Please welcome Elaine J. Alpert, MD, MPH as today's guest writer. Dr. Alpert is an internationally-respected family violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking education, advocacy, and policy expert. She is an independent curriculum design and policy consultant in all forms of violence prevention, teaches at the University of British Columbia School of Medicine, and provides expertise in Human Trafficking as Senior Global Health Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Global Health and Human Rights. She also serves as a Trustee of the all-volunteer Steve Glidden Foundation, which provides summer camp scholarships for children who are homeless, refugees, abused, or affected by family or community violence. She can be reached at 

I’ve been watching news coverage about Ray Rice’s domestic violence (DV) assault for the past two days now and I have to say that, on balance, I am disappointed.

As a veteran physician, educator and scholar in the fields of domestic violence, sexual assault and, more recently, human trafficking, I’ve been paying attention over the years both to events (often tragic) as they happen, and to trends in both media expertise and public perception. Here are some observations along with a few words on how I think the media can do better:

Media attention ideally should:

  • Tell the viewing, listening, reading, or clicking audience what happened (report the news);
  • Raise questions that people might not otherwise have considered;
  • Educate, inform and raise awareness among the general public; and
  • Motivate people to action (for example, by providing ready resources for those at risk, and by showing those who want to help how to do so).

How good a job do our media really do (in general) when reporting about DV? Typically, for a few days after a high profile DV assault or murder, we see coverage about whatever “event” transpired, along with passionate and generally well-meaning attention paid to DV as a whole. Overall, (and not specific to the Rice case), we tend to see variations of:

  • Shock or disbelief that such a nice guy could have done such a terrible, unanticipated thing, often supported by “evidence” of niceness – he was a pillar of the community, he walked his dog every morning, he brought the paper to the elderly neighbor’s door, he belonged to the neighborhood watch, etc.  Often these “nice guy” testimonials come from neighbors or passers-by;
  • Proclamations that this was either a one-off act of insanity or passion, or at least could not have been predicted  – he must suddenly have lost control, perhaps something happened (provoked him) to make him “lose it,” no one saw this coming, etc. These “no-one-saw-this-coming” testimonials are usually from acquaintances, co-workers, or local officials, often accompanied by assurances that the neighborhood itself is “nice,” “quiet,” or “tranquil,”  or at least full of hard-working, honest and earnest people. Accompanying footage often shows tree-lined streets and picket fences whenever possible;
  • A general wringing of hands about difficulty the “victims” (or their children) may encounter moving forward (sometimes accompanied by additional angst about extended family members, pets, or traumatized neighbors). A few even engage in hand-wringing about the future well-being of the perpetrators (think Steubenville). All commentators can participate freely in the wringing-of-hands exercise, including reporters themselves; and
  • Assurances that whatever tragic event just transpired was the tipping point and things will be better (this will not happen again, police responses will be improved, weapons will be better regulated, social service referrals will be handled more promptly, etc.). Such assurances usually come from local or statewide officials.

And then, almost like clockwork, once the arraignment (or funeral) has passed, and the world turns its attention to the next short-cycle news event, coverage moves to the next ratings-boosting headline.

Although still early, this pattern is already being replicated in the Ray Rice assault. The current pundits – at least on the news clips I am watching – are predominantly:

1. NFL or other sports experts/journalists talking about how it's important to figure out who in the league knew what, and when they knew it, while proclaiming how shocked they were when these allegations first arose last winter because Rice was – guess what – a pillar in his community;

2. Journalists and authors who are either psychologists or other counselors, or who have had personal experiences with DV and have written (and are, at times, quite obviously plugging) books about what "battered women" are “like” or what they “go through,” earnestly trying to explain Janay Rice’s various (and some would argue, stage-managed) "stand by your man" statements;

3. Legislators who proclaim (sometimes with passion) that DV is bad and VAWA is good; or

4. Lawyers who wonder why Rice was allowed to enter a "diversionary" program and was not jailed for aggravated assault.

Some of this commentary can add value to the societal discussion that needs to take place. Clearly, it is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

What I do NOT see - and what I think really needs to be featured prominently – is reporting that provides:

1. Commentary from DV experts, including community-based or national experts from DV advocacy organizations, recognized scholars, and those whose expertise is in primary prevention – changing conditions to prevent DV from occurring in the first place. Baltimore (and the DC Metro area) has all of that to offer - and then some.

2. Resource information for the viewer (or reader) on how to get help or how to get involved to help. This can easily be offered as a “crawler” with the vital information scrolling past at the bottom of the screen on TV or as a sidebar in print or on the internet.

At least as far as I have seen, very few "pundits" have talked about how to reach out to, and empower, survivors.  No one (at least on broadcasts I’ve seen) has told viewers who may be in danger that there are vital community-based services in most localities and how to contact them to get help. Not one has talked about the restorative power of support groups (though lots of pundits have talked about how important it is for the Rices to get one or another kind of therapy for things that may or may not have happened in their own childhoods). Not one has talked about how to engage men and other bystanders as active allies to challenge and change entrenched social norms that tolerate and promote violence. And not one has displayed the National DV hotline phone number (1-800-799-7233) or website (

Many years ago, when print media reigned supreme, the Boston Globe included an inset box with every article about DV. The box included a stylized image of a telephone, words identical or similar to “To Get Help,” and a DV hotline number. This boxed information was normally inserted in the final layout process. During a layout makeover several years ago, this vital information got dropped and, to my knowledge, has not been restored.

Including “To Get Help” info about DV in print, on TV news, and on web-based news sources is such a no-brainer. Why not include it automatically in news reporting?

None of this is rocket science – whenever you read about a disaster of any other kind – from Katrina to Sandy to tornadoes – there is ALMOST ALWAYS commentary from experts in the field, accompanied by a box or informational inset that provides information for people who need help or who want to volunteer, contribute or help in some other way.  Why is there a different set of rules for DV?

So we have come a long way I guess, but the media has still not got it quite right – at least not yet.

Janay – if you read this, your local DV organization is ready to reach out to you without judgment, and with compassion, patience, information, empowerment, and support.  If only the TV would tell you the phone number…

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