The Basics: What Every Reporter Needs to Know about IPV
By Stefanie Friedhoff
In this tipsheet building on the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," Stefanie Friedhoff reviews essential background for reporting on IPV.
What is intimate partner violence?
IPV, also called domestic violence, is a pattern of abuse that includes behavior ranging from verbal abuse, through threats and intimidation, manipulative behavior, and physical and sexual assault, to rape and homicide. Adults or adolescents use IPV to maintain power and control over their intimate partners.
Intimate Partner Violence is a learned behavior that typically increases in frequency and severity over time. Abusers fail to take responsibility for their actions. When they are not confronted—be it by the victim, or co-workers, or friends and family, or police and law enforcement, or others in society—they continue to think that it is all right to use violence against their partners.
Who are the victims? Who are the abusers?
Both victims and abusers come from all socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, religious and educational backgrounds. Intimate partner violence affects people of all ages and sexual orientations.
When it comes to gender, however, the picture is no longer balanced: victims are predominantly women, abusers are predominantly men. In the United States, 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. Also, in 80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder. Women are also twice as likely to be injured.
How common is intimate partner violence?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1.3 million women are victims of intimate partner violence each year. Every fourth woman experiences physical assault by a partner in her lifetime. In comparison, 7.5 percent of men report having been a victim of intimate partner violence. A U.S. department of Justice study found that less than 20 percent of victims who suffer an injury from their partner seek medical treatment.
Are there certain characteristics that make it easy to identify abusers?
No. News stories on domestic violence murders often report with an element of surprise that the man who committed the crime was otherwise ‘normal,’ a family man, a loving father, a devoted volunteer. This usually reflects the feelings of family members and friends who knew the murderer, but it distorts the reality of how intimate partner violence works inside our communities.
Extensive studies reveal that abusers almost always are functioning socially in their work environment, and that they are often well-liked by others. This contradiction — nice people who turn to abusing their partners when no one is looking — is at the core of many misconceptions about domestic violence. Reporters need to recognize and accurately report these dynamics so audiences understand that it is typical for abusers to show a kind face to the world while terrorizing their intimate partners; and that a suspect’s level of integration into community life is not an indicator of what it was like to live with him.
Why do victims stay in abusive relationships?
There are many reasons: most often, research shows, victims cannot afford housing or find a job to sustain them; many are afraid and don’t want to lose or endanger their children; some have discovered that there is no effective legal protection from the abuser. There are also reasons such as religious believes, immigration status, and family pressures.
Without context on what drives intimate partner violence, neighbors or family members who knew the abuser often use this question to blame the victim in the aftermath of a crime. “Why didn’t she leave him?” people wonder, questioning the victims’ choices.
It is important for journalists to not fall for this trap. As with all other crimes, the responsibility for violent behavior in a relationship belongs to the abuser and no one else. Reporters do well when they do not repeat this question naively in a story but use it in their research to better understand the dynamics of abusive relationships and the limited choices of the women who end up as victims.
Despite considerable obstacles, many victims eventually do leave their abuser. Leaving is a process; it takes time and often multiple steps.
What escalates an abusive relationship?
Since intimate partner violence is about power and control, a victim’s struggle to break free often directly results in escalation. Homicide most often happens when a woman is trying to end, or has ended, the relationship with her abuser.
Knowing this is important for journalists as it provides us with a narrative bridge from the details of a horrific murder to the larger context in which the crime has happened. For example, it allows the story to return to what came before the crime, and illustrate how attempts to break free are common precursors of escalating violence; and it allows reporters to include early warning signs, local prevention efforts and support services for victims, which are crucial elements of covering domestic violence in our communities. It also illustrates why journalists need to take extra steps to protect victims in ongoing cases.
How does violence in relationships affect the rest of society?
Intimate partner violence is not a private matter. IPV has serious consequences for victims and abusers, their children, and society. Many studies and statistics have been published over the past two decades illuminating the far-reaching impact. The following is a summary of some of the most important and frequently confirmed findings.
Impact on victims. Experiencing frequent abuse can affect a victim’s earnings and job performance; about 20 percent of female victims loose their jobs. Abuse victims are also more likely to suffer from depression, which can result in the neglect of children. And battered women are four to five times more likely to commit suicide. Research shows that domestic violence is also a major cause of homelessness; in various cities around the U.S., between 20 and 40 percent of homeless parents report having left their home because of violent disputes.
Impact on children. Children who witness or experience violence at home frequently show symptoms of nightmares, withdrawal, self-blame, low self-esteem and aggression against others. Men who have witnessed domestic violence as a child are two times more likely to abuse their wives than children of non-violent parents. Forty to 60 percent of men who frequently assault their wives also assault their children.
Impact on society. According to a 2007 study published by the Centers for Disease Control, there are over 16,000 homicides and over two million medically treated injuries due to intimate partner violence annually in the United States, costing more than $37 billion once all costs are factored in (such as medical and mental health treatment, lost work days, and public services, including courts.)
What are the most common mistakes in reporting about intimate partner violence?
Domestic violence murder is covered as a “shocking,” isolated event.
There is no context on how often intimate partner violence occurs in the community.
Coverage has no information on how to prevent domestic violence, and where victims can seek help.
No experts are quoted or were interviewed for the story.
A story discovers a woman abusing a man as a new phenomenon.
Reporting blames the victim for what happened.
Reporting excuses the abuser and downplays the crime.
Stefanie Friedhoff is special projects manager at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. She is also a freelance journalist and science writer for U.S. and European media such as Time and Folio/Neue Zuercher Zeitung.