Nine lessons for rethinking how you report on domestic violence

Published on
March 10, 2022

Except for the periodic police brief or coverage of a lurid trial, The Cincinnati Enquirer has never truly tackled the topic of domestic violence. Since late 2018, The Enquirer’s reporters kicked around the real need for a deeper exploration. The difficulty was finding a reporting and storytelling approach that reached goals rarely achieved in daily coverage: insights and solutions.

Then in April 2020, Ohio’s first full month of the novel coronavirus pandemic, six women in the city of Cincinnati were murdered, more than in all of 2019. In at least half of the instances, domestic violence lay at the root. The Enquirer’s team covered the escalating toll while enduring the storms of pandemic and social unrest. The grant from the Center for Health Journalism gave us the kick to figure out a way forward. 

To give us focus, my colleague Cameron Knight offered one word: children. 

Thinking about children and the impact of domestic violence put our minds on the future. Domestic violence is human behavior, and it can be changed. In fact, it must be changed, or we will not evolve as a species. We realized we had to reckon with domestic violence as an intergenerational legacy. 

Fortunately, a wealth of research from medicine and sociology stood available to guide our thinking. Science now can prove what artists and writers have observed from the dawn of time: Violence gets handed down from one generation to the next. 

Domestic violence is not entirely a crime story, but that’s where most journalism stops. Domestic violence is a health story, perhaps the biggest of all. A child who witnesses domestic violence can be at higher risk either to become an offender or a survivor, the cycle ever perpetuating itself. And journalism can help put a stop to this sorrow.

Here are nine lessons learned from “Beyond the Bruises,” The Enquirer’s grant-supported project report: 

  • Think beyond the partners. Stories about survivors are irresistible, especially if you find a survivor willing and able to speak on the record and sit for photographs and video. But that one survivor frames domestic violence as one person’s misery and lets readers off the hook. They inevitably will ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” and no matter how well you explain the many complex reasons that a survivor stays with an abuser — he’s the breadwinner or parent of children — the reader retorts, “Yeah, but I would have left.” Easy to say, if you’re not in an abusive relationship. I’m not suggesting you avoid survivors and offenders. I’m urging you to look at their children. 

  • Embrace the long view. It took The Enquirer’s team more than two years, and the USC grant, to bring those early thoughts to fruition as a project. The more you think about your idea, the better it will be. As we did our reporting, we defined the project’s arc. The three main stories are crafted to illustrate the past, present and future of domestic violence. Be bold in your thinking.

  • Define an impact you want your story to effect, then push hard. We wanted to show jurisdictions that police and advocates can work together. This can be a particularly valuable insight as cities and counties understand police simply cannot solve every problem, particularly with domestic violence. Cam Knight’s story about the Dvert collaboration showed readers that when an advocate shows up with police on a domestic violence call, lives are saved. 

  • Keep a story-ideas jar, or Word document. We have a list now of more than three dozen ideas we want to pursue in the coming year. We want to put domestic violence on the agenda of the 2022 governor’s race in Ohio, and we know that hammering the subject with our best journalism can get it there.

  • Connect and stay connected to a visual journalist as eager to tackle the subject as you are. Liz Dufour, a veteran Enquirer photographer, has long been passionate about domestic violence coverage. She is an invaluable resource. The reporters on the team worked for weeks to find survivors, but Liz found women willing to tell their stories to The Enquirer. Our project would not have succeeded without Liz.

  • Thinking small can be an advantage. Instead of pulling out years of data, we took one month’s docket in Hamilton County Municipal Court, 161 cases. We ran the names of offenders and survivors through Accurint, the subscription database. Accurint provides names and histories of relatives and friends of the person you’re examining, which allowed us to find the parents and first-degree relatives who had been arrested for domestic violence in the past. This is an expensive undertaking -- $6,000 in search fees, which I hadn’t budgeted when applying for the grant. 

  • Bring an intern or young staff reporter onto your team. With our grant money, we hired Quinlan Bentley, a University of Cincinnati student and editor of the campus newspaper. He did the bulk to the database wrangling and name-matching on Accurint. He told me the project gave him a new way to think about domestic violence, which was my goal. Unless young men see the devastating impact of domestic violence, little will change.

  • Build your think tank. Go beyond the cops and domestic violence advocates. Go beyond your editors, who, bless their hearts, generally are reluctant to think about domestic violence as more than a crime story. Dozens of researchers nationwide and around the world are studying the impact of adverse childhood experiences, including domestic violence. Our experts kept hammering the point to us that this problem can be solved, or at least ameliorated, but you must focus on children. That demand got our colleague Terry DeMio to work on an excellent piece about violence prevention in the schools, which is required in Ohio. 

  • A key lesson from our work is the discovery that domestic violence is a social justice issue. While Black people make up 14.4% of Ohio’s population, they have made up at least 30% of domestic violence arrests for a decade. Black people were 68% of the people arrested in our April 2020 sample. 

What that revelation taught us is that domestic violence is a slow boil, where abuse goes on for years before the survivor is frightened enough to call 911. If you are Black in Ohio, you may not know of resources for survivors until the police come to the door.