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Big challenges in reporting on black women and intimate partner violence

Big challenges in reporting on black women and intimate partner violence

Picture of Debra Varnado
Big challenges in reporting on black women and intimate partner violence

Black women make up less than 10% of Los Angeles County’s population, yet they are more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women of other racial and ethnic groups that comprise greater portions of the population.  

Officials from the county’s Public Health Department and allied professionals have characterized such violence as a public health issue that seriously affects the health and well-being of individuals, families and entire communities. Communities in Central and South Los Angeles are severely impacted, with concentrations of domestic violence. 

My three-part series for Center for Health Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship focused on understanding the racial disparities between these communities and those elsewhere in the county. It sought to identify risk factors contributing to the violence, and policies and practices useful in reducing or eliminating the risk.

The goal was developing information that could influence and benefit individuals and communities; expand the conversation regarding violence against women; elevate domestic violence in priority; and help to refocus public policy discussions.  

The project largely relied on web research, public and private agency studies, reports, evaluations, and interviews with caregivers, agency staff and victim-survivor interviews.  The following are some of the lessons I learned during my reporting.


‘Not just an issue for women’

Leaders in the field lament that domestic violence continues to be perceived as a woman’s issue, while in more precise terms, research has found it has serious consequences for women and others, including the developing fetuses of women who are abused during pregnancy and for children who witness it in the household. 

Writing for USA Today, Jayne O’Donnell and Mabinty Quarshie reported that, “Brain imaging in infants shows that exposure to domestic violence — even as they are sleeping, or in utero—can reduce parts of the brain, change its overall structure and affect the way its circuits work together. Witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm to children’s mental health and learning as being abused directly.” 

Domestic violence is an epidemic within LGBT communities, according to the LA County Domestic Violence Council. The elderly and disabled are especially vulnerable.  

African Americans consider domestic violence a community’s problem, to be addressed by the community. “It takes a village,” with elders, neighbors, friends, and community institutions. 

Although men are less likely to report it, many are battered and abused. “It’s hard for a guy to say, ‘I need help,’” one shelter operator told reporter Jenny Jarvie, in the Los Angeles Times. “Studies have long shown that men and women are on the receiving end at more or less equal rates, though women are much more likely to be injured and to report it,” Jarvie wrote. 

“Domestic violence costs the U.S. economy more than $5.8 billion in a single year,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention findings, published by Advocates for Human Rights. “Other studies have estimated the annual costs … in the US to be as high as $12.6 billion. … Abused women in the US missed nearly 8 million days of paid work in a single year — the equivalent of losing more than 32,000 full-time jobs from the US economy.”

So-called nonmonetary costs include “… short-term and long-term physical and mental health problems including physical injuries, depression, stress, and substance abuse. (Direct costs) include the costs of health care services, social and welfare services, counseling, police and criminal justice services, legal services, transportation costs, and housing and other refuge services used by victims…and special education services used to treat children of abused women. The cost of replacing property damaged by an abuser is also a direct cost of domestic violence. 

Treating the trauma of domestic violence

Experiencing domestic violence is traumatic emotionally, mentally and physically. The effects can be wide-ranging and long-lasting. Domestic violence intervention and prevention specialists stress the importance of providing culturally sensitive services and trauma-informed therapies and practices, including those provided by first responders. 

New approaches to address domestic violence are emerging, among them: transformative and restorative justice practices, and victim–offender dialogues. Other key efforts to address domestic violence aim to decriminalize responses to it, end the disproportionate levels of discipline directed at black girls in schools, a significant number of whom risk future incarceration, and ending the intergenerational cycle of violence.

‘MeToo’ movement for domestic violence

A Me-Too-like movement has not coalesced around the cause of ending domestic violence, although such action could bring focused and sustained attention to the problem and associated issues, among them, domestic violence-related homicides and the use of firearms to commit them, insufficient services and inequities in service provision, and the wide-ranging costs of domestic violence. 

“Media coverage … has not yet led to widespread understanding of just how pervasive a problem (domestic violence) is,” reporter and a New York University adjunct professor Susan Stellin said. “The topic hasn’t had the same cultural reckoning among the public or the press.”

Victims continue to resist talking publicly because of shame, fear and the risk of greater danger, as well as taboos against sharing personal and family problems. They reject media coverage out of concern that it will be ill-informed, insensitive and sensationalized.

Better system needed to collect data

Members of the domestic violence community agree that the true prevalence of domestic violence is unknown and difficult to measure. Obtaining accurate numbers regarding the abuse of black women may prove even more difficult as studies have shown that black women have less trust in law enforcement.  

Eve Sheedy, executive director of the LA County Domestic Violence Council, said, “Various people and agencies collect data, (but) the problem is very large — the numbers are elusive, and there are a lot of underlying problem.

“County Public Health Department staff is trying to develop a multi-pronged plan to collect overarching domestic violence data. We are working with the LA County Commission on the Status of Women and other partners to try to develop some system where we can start to collect useable data that would be helpful for everyone.”  


Referrals from friends, family, or caregivers and conducting face-to-face interviews are invaluable in establishing a trusting relationship between survivors and the reporter. But “finding sources willing to speak openly about their experiences can be a challenge,” Stellin said. In the absence of desired resources, accounts of domestic violence can be found on social media and blogs, advocacy group and service provider websites, and in news reports, journal articles, 911 calls for intimate partner violence, as well as testimony before public committees. 


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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