Each year, DVSN holds a Candlelight Vigil to honor the Massachusetts lives lost to domestic violence in the previous 12 months. The keynote speaker at our 2021 Vigil was Tracy Schott, producer and director of the documentary film, “Finding Jenn’s Voice” and founder of the website Voices4Change. In her keynote address, Tracy highlighted some problems she has identified with how the media reports on intimate partner violence and homicide (watch the full event at DVSN.org/Vigil). This is an important issue that bears examination. The recent high-profile case of Gabby Petito dominated national news and spurred discussion about discrepancies in what is reported and, crucially, how much is not reported. With Tracy’s focus on this issue, DVSN is pleased to welcome her as a guest contributor to this blog. The following are Tracy’s 10 tips for journalists reporting on intimate partner violence, many of which are excellent suggestions for anyone looking to educate themselves about this issue and make a positive change.

Note: Throughout the following post, Tracy Schott focuses on abuse of women by men, as this is the most common demographic for intimate partner violence. However, domestic violence occurs across all demographics, regardless of ethnicity, race, social economic status, religion, culture, gender identity, expression, or sexual orientation. DVSN is here to listen to and support all victims and survivors.

Join Me: Become a Voice4Change

By Tracy Schott

When I released the film Finding Jenn’s Voice in 2015, I was furious. My award-winning documentary about intimate partner violence (IPV), one of the leading causes of death during pregnancy, was my first foray discussing the horrors of domestic abuse. In the years since, I realized one film was not enough to end this epidemic. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the US — more than 10 million women and men every year.

As a social worker, I saw these horrors up close. When I practiced for 15 years as a child and family therapist, many adult and child abuse victims came to me to heal from their emotional injuries. That is why in 2019, I created Voices4Change.

I know that it will take all of us to come together first to understand that this is happening in our own communities, perhaps in the house next to you — or maybe your own home. To bring us together, we need to know the facts. And we need the journalists who bring us our news to be part of the solution. If you are a reporter, please put this information to use immediately. If you know a reporter, please share this list. If we are armed with knowledge, we can be the change we wish to see globally and end intimate partner violence for once and for all.

Questions, thoughts, comments? Visit Voices4Change and send me an email.

Dear Reporter: Please Put These 10 Tips into Action Today

1. Study the Stats

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is prevalent and pervasive, and you need to know the statistics.

  • Data shows that 20% of women are raped in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 3 women worldwide (more than 1 in 4 women in America) experiences physical violence from an intimate partner.
  • Men are also victims: 1 in 9 men will experience severe physical abuse by a partner in the US.
  • What’s even more alarming: The rate of intimate partner violence appears to be increasing. Preliminary research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic increased both rates and severity of IPV worldwide in 2020. Click here to watch our webinar about the Shadow Pandemic.
2. Avoid playing the blame game.

No one deserves to be intimidated, controlled, threatened, or physically injured by anyone — especially their partner. Please stop blaming the victim by searching for why the abuser did what they did. By pointing out the victim’s flaws, you are helping your readers blame the victim and making it that much harder to stop these crimes. It doesn’t matter what she did. She was harmed by the person she trusted most. That’s the story.

3. Do the right kind of research. 

We frequently hear local District Attorneys or police detectives say, “We don’t understand why this happened.” That’s probably not true. Research on intimate partner violence has been going on for more than 40 years. We do understand it. The chances are that the case you’re reporting is similar to other cases that have been studied. Find those stories. Good spots to start include NCADVNNEDVThe Hotline. Avoid general forensic psychologists unless they have training in intimate partner violence. Instead, make friends with legitimate researchers who know the facts. Report on their data. Voices4Change can help connect you.

4. Pick up on patterns.

Intimate partner violence doesn’t begin overnight. Your story should not be about a single incident. Instead, dig deep because abusive relationships have similar behavior patterns — including a rush to intimacy, isolation, jealousy, financial control, stalking, emotional abuse, and physical violence. Too often, these patterns often lead to lethal or near-lethal violence. Please report on these patterns so that more women will recognize them. Your story can save lives.

5. Intimate Partner Violence is about Power and Control, not black eyes and broken bones.

Intimate partner homicide is frequently but not always predicated by physical violence. Up to 35% of intimate partner homicides have no previous history of physical abuse. However, nearly all have a significant history of controlling behavior. A good tool to better understand the dynamics is the Duluth Power & Control Wheel (pictured below), which the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project developed.

6. Don’t ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”

Research confirms that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when it ends. Women are more likely to be killed when leaving than at any other time in the relationship. Report on this fact and encourage women to contact a domestic violence advocate trained to create safety planning strategies so victims can avoid homicide.

7. Don’t report, “He just snapped.”

 The majority of intimate partner murders are committed by men who are extremely controlling and have deliberately planned the violence they commit. Suggesting “he just snapped” diminishes the severity of the injury experienced by the victims. There is no evidence to suggest that mental illness — including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression — is linked to domestic violence. However, personality disorders such as narcissism, borderline personality, and sociopathy are related to perpetrators of homicide. Again, do your research on the perpetrator to understand the real story fully.

8. Be clear: It is the guns that kill. 

Yes, people kill using guns. But, despite that popular slogan, research shows that guns in the home increase the likelihood of a homicide by 500%. All too often, children, friends, other family members — and even pets — are killed. Frequently, the perpetrator also turns the gun on himself. What’s more, most mass shootings are perpetrated by men with a history of domestic violence. Usually, one of those victims is an ex-wife or ex-girlfriend.

9. Believe it or not, strangulation is a precursor to murder. 

I had a hard time getting my head around this, too, but it is widespread and a huge predictor of lethal domestic violence for a perpetrator to strangle his victim for months, if not years, before killing her. Research tells us that women who have been strangled by their partners are 750% to be killed by them. If she survives, the long-term physical consequences can be devastating, ranging from lifelong physical injuries to permanent brain damage. Please let your readers know they are not alone if they have been strangled; encourage them to seek help.

10. Think bigger. 

Don’t underestimate this epidemic. I have read too many reports of domestic abuse that want readers to know that women kill, too. Yes, it happens. But, again, study statistics. More than 90% of perpetrators of intimate partner homicide are men. When we talk about the minority of violence by women, we deflect the responsibility. In fact, women who kill their intimate partners are frequently victims of violence by those partners. And they are more likely to be under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Honestly, I beg you, realize that gender-based violence is often perpetrated by cultural norms, male privilege, and the devaluing of women and girls. The story you are writing is part of a much bigger problem. Go deep.

BONUS TIP: This is my final request for today.

Please don’t interview the neighbors about how nice a guy was the man who just killed his wife then turned the gun on himself — and maybe took out a kid, grandpa, and the beagle. Who cares if the neighbor doesn’t think he did it because he was such a sweetheart to shovel her walk last year? Know this: Perpetrators of intimate partner violence aren’t typically viewed as malevolent by outsiders. Rather, they are frequently seen as very charming nice guys who wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s their MO. They reserve their violent behavior for women and children behind closed doors. Know this, and do the right kind of research before you hit send to your editor. 

Thank you to Tracy Schott for sharing these important tips for reporting on domestic violence and shedding light on the issues of its portrayal in the media. Educating people with accurate facts about how widespread and ingrained domestic abuse is can go a long way to changing the culture of silence and shame that allows it to continue. Media sensationalism of carefully chosen cases, such as Gabby Petito, adds an entertainment factor that undermines the seriousness and belies the regularity and prevalence of the issue. Focusing on unique details of particular incidents without a greater context creates a false impression of exceptionality. A conscious effort must be made to avoid blaming victims or providing excuses for abusers. Responsible reporting makes a difference.

Please check this monthly blog to read updates about DVSN
and stay informed about domestic violence.
Or, join our mailing list to get the information sent conveniently to your inbox!