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Two leading journalists on domestic violence swap stories and bust myths

Two leading journalists on domestic violence swap stories and bust myths

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If there’s one simple message from the conversation on domestic violence between journalist and author Rachel Louise Snyder and freelance writer Melissa Jeltsen at the 2021 Domestic Violence Symposium on Friday, it is this: There is nothing simple about reporting on domestic violence.

It is a complex issue shrouded in myths too often perpetuated by journalists.

Take, for instance, the “snap.” An abuser who kills their partner or family never just snapped, said Snyder, as is often portrayed in the news. She read from her 2019 book, “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us,” by way of explaining that the snap is “a smoke screen, a cliché, a fiction. The snap does not exist.”

Chronic, lethal abuse towards an intimate partner is rather an escalation. These relationships are built on one person isolating and controlling the other, which “leads to verbal abuse; leads to physical abuse; leads to punches, kicks; leads to strangulation, which is a much more dangerous marker of physical escalation; leads to guns being used, not always for fatalities, but as symbols and representations of power and control,” Snyder said.

The patterns are so familiar, said Snyder, that it’s possible to “predict domestic violence homicide before it happens, like scientifically, with a fair amount of accuracy.”

Jeltsen, who like Snyder has reported extensively on domestic violence, pointed out such predictions are possible because violence is a learned behavior, by its nature repetitive. And she praised Snyder for also including in her book the stories of those who perpetrate abuse, many of whom often “have grown up with traumatic life experiences themselves.”

While these experiences are the very basics of domestic abuse, the women didn't know that when they first began reporting on it. It was one of the “1,000 aha moments” they've had as they came to realize how much they did not know. Snyder’s most profound realization came when a victim advocate made her see that the media was one of many systems — including law enforcement and the courts — that have failed victims. By that she meant they’d failed to understand their experiences and the very nature of the crimes.

That advocate was featured in a story The New Yorker published in 2013, three years after the magazine first rejected it. It was a pivotal rejection, she said, that made her fight harder for domestic violence stories.

Snyder wrote to an editor at The New Yorker at the time, saying, “If men were getting killed in the same numbers that women were getting killed, this would be a headline from coast to coast. The reason that this gets rejected is that it's seen as a women's issue, rather than the human rights issue that it is.”

The very next day, she said, “they turned around and assigned it to me.”

Of course, both women still struggle with the question: “How do you get editors interested in what feels like a very familiar story that we've all heard before?”

In Snyder’s view, the best way to make the story fresh is by figuring out which systems or institutions journalists want to report on, and who benefits and loses within that system. She says reporters must also ask themselves, “What's controversial about this?” in order to examine their own misconceptions and prejudices.

For instance, Snyder believed for years that shelters solved a victim’s problems. “I thought shelter was a pretty adequate response. You take the people who are in danger out of danger, and put them in this secret place where they're provided for.” 

“In fact,” said Snyder, “it's incredibly disruptive.”

Being in hiding at a shelter means children can’t go to school or soccer practice. It may be too dangerous for victims to go to work. If they have aging parents, they can’t take see or take care of them. Most shelters don’t even accept their pets.

Domestic violence, said Snyder, “is the only crime I can think of where the impetus for change is on the victim, not the perpetrator. How did we ever think this was an adequate response? Why are we not taking abusers out of the home?” 

These are the kinds of assumptions and systems both writers have challenged in their stories, told through many a victim’s eyes. That latter aspect was at the heart of the Q&A that followed their conversation. Many journalists in attendance wondered how to get victims to trust and speak to reporters, without re-traumatizing them.

That last issue doesn’t worry Snyder too much. “There's not much evidence that actually points to that being a real hazard,” she said, acknowledging hers is a somewhat controversial view. But she also primarily seeks those who have enough distance from the incidents that they can speak about them without breaking down.

Jeltsen knows that because people often see the media as an authority, they feel obliged to talk to reporters. So from the start she tells victims and survivors, “‘You don't have to tell me anything that you don't want to tell me, but if I am going to do a big story on you, it's going to involve a lot of back-and-forth and fact-checking and documentation.’ I set up the expectation for what the story is going to look like, to make sure that they’re on board with that. But in my experience, a lot of people do want to tell their stories, especially domestic violence victims, because they have felt like so stripped of their own agency and stripped of power.”

To help restore that sense of power, Snyder will even put her interviewees in charge of turning her recorder on and off, giving them control of what’s on the record or not. Humility, she said, goes a long way when covering domestic violence.

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