Watch Your Language: Presenting Domestic Violence in News Reports

Published on
October 5, 2009

The New York Times reported in September that domestic violence programs in the state of California have have been largely eliminated. The Domestic Violence Program's last $16 million was cut completely in July, in efforts to close a near $24 billion state budget deficit.

Violence is a public health problem, said Eve F. Sheedy, Deputy City Attorney, Domestic Violence Legislative and Policy Advisor in the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office. It matters to public health that these resources have been cut.

While money is short, there are still ways to increase awareness and help victims of domestic violence. Sheedy made an appeal to the National Health Journalism Fellows to make some adjustments to the conventions of reporting on domestic violence. Here are some of her take-home points:

  • Journalists have no problem calling gangs using guns violence, but hesitate when it comes to the domestic realm. "Please never use the word 'domestic dispute.' A dispute is not putting the toilet seat down or not putting the cap back on toothpaste. When you write about domestic violence, call it domestic violence," Sheedy said. If a wife kills her husband or a husband kills his wife, this is violence. If a man beats his ex-girlfriend, it is domestic violence.
  • Avoid sentences like, "The children were upstairs and unharmed." "All children are harmed when they witness domestic violence," said Sheedy. Even if they escape physical harm, they are certainly not unharmed.
  • "If you choke, that is when something is stuck in your throat." People do not use the word 'strangulation.' Strangulation can kill in a matter of minutes and can have long-lasting damage for survivors. That word makes people react differently than the word 'choke.'
  • Be careful about naming and showing victims of domestic violence. They are often still in danger.
  • The passive voice: the phrase "The woman was raped," for example, takes the responsibility away from rapists. It does not make explicit that the victim is not at fault for what happened. "Focus responsibility to the person responsible," Sheedy said. "The rapist is unknown," appropriately places emphasis on the perpetrator. "The reason the passive voice sounds right is because it is familiar," said Sheedy.
  • "Domestic violence is not rage and it's not anger and it's not I've lost my job and I'm upset." Stress, poverty and mental health does not cause domestic violence. All of these things can play a role, but pinning down a single cause undercuts the complexity and breadth of the problem.
  • Domestic violence happens in rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, even if wealthy people have the ability to avoid police and emergency rooms.
  • "It is extremely rare for someone to come home one day and all of a sudden commit a violent act." If a man runs down his children and neighbors say he was an incredibly attentive father, ask follow-up questions. Was he controlling? Were there incidents before the murder?
  • When you write a story that arises from domestic violence, include a sentence about hotline numbers people can call. "It would be a tremendous public service if you can help us get the word out." The number is 1-800-799-SAFE.