The Legwork: Where to Look, What Questions to Ask

This tipsheet, building on the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," reviews best practices for reporting.

Violence in relationships is a sensitive and tricky subject to research. First of all, reporters are charged with providing facts on an issue that is initially both personal and emotional; and one that is heavily influenced by societal attitudes. Less than 50 years ago, intimate partner violence was not considered a crime unless there were severe physical injuries. When journalists start researching domestic violence, they need to be aware that in some subsets of U.S. society, permissive views of verbal, emotional and physical abuse are still prevalent.

There are usually two kinds of reporting on intimate partner violence: breaking news stories immediately following a murder, a high profile rape or a unique court case; and enterprise or feature reporting exploring the subject with more depth and a unique angle. To succeed in providing accurate, informative coverage in both settings, reporters need to acquire a sound understanding of the overall issue and a diverse set of sources, and to research how specific aspects of the domestic violence crisis play out in their communities.

1) Reporting domestic violence in the aftermath

When murder or another kind of high profile case strikes, time constraints are often the biggest obstacle. Here are some tips on how to quickly access context for your stories:

Get more details on the case

  • Check with local police if the crime matches the legal definition of domestic violence.
  • Find out if there was evidence of prior domestic violence. Did the police respond to the address before? Did the victim ever seek help at one of the local shelters or advocacy organizations? Are there restraining orders or other court records?
  • Understand that there are several different kinds of court orders, which vary from state to state, such as “No Contact Orders” or “Protection Orders.”

Get up to speed on the subject

  • Whatever your specialty in journalism, consider the many elements of the story: intimate partner violence is a crime story, a science story (from the psychology of abusive relationships to the impact repeated violence has on the victims’ biochemistry, a human rights story, and a public health story.
  • Talk to at least one domestic violence advocate, one legal expert, and one counselor for context. Ask: How do abusers control their victims? Is the case typical of some of the dynamics in abusive relationships? What are early warning signs? What protection is available for local victims? What can community members do when they think they see warning signs? What is your organization doing to prevent intimate partner violence? Where can people call for help?
  • Find out how common the problem is in your community: How many domestic violence calls do local police respond to yearly? Are there other hotlines? How many protection orders were filed in your city or state; how many violations of such orders? How many victims did the city’s shelters receive in prior years?
  • Check for public and non-profit domestic violence programs. The state will have numbers at least for public programs: How many adults and children did they serve last year in support groups, via legal help, individual counseling?

Sort perceptions from facts:

  • In the aftermath of a murder, friends, family and neighbors are often reluctant to speak ill of the dead. Studies show that they tend to initially deny knowledge of prior abuse and describe the accused in positive terms. Co-workers tend to support the person they worked with and blame the partner, regardless of if they worked with the victim or the abuser. When you interview these sources, ask if they have seen signs of abuse, from physical injury to cries for help to police coming to visit at night.
  • Rely on police records and police comments but remember that law enforcement officers may also have misinformation about the dynamics of abuse and may inaccurately frame the incident. For example, it is not unusual for a police official to blame a “troubled marriage” for a murder that clearly had a perpetrator and a victim.

2) Enterprise reporting on intimate partner violence

Feature stories and investigative projects on domestic violence can shed light on how a preventable crime reaches far into society and burdens many. Kristen Lombardi, investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, for example, found an institutional angle on the problem of date rape by focusing on how colleges respond to (and sometimes cover up) student complaints. Her award winning series can be found online. (You can find more inspiring examples of how to frame investigative domestic violence projects in the Dart Award section.)

Here are some tips that will help you frame projects, work with victims, and be aware of reporting challenges:

Be resourceful when looking for story ideas

  • Have domestic violence calls to the police increased or decreased? How good a job is local law enforcement doing following up on complaints?
  • Are intimate partner violence murders up or down? Did shelters have to turn away victims or close because of new funding realities? Have local prevention efforts worked or backfired?
  • Consider the risk factors and how they play out: Is domestic abuse more prevalent among 20 to 24 year olds in your city? How about recent immigrant or low-income communities? Research these risk factors but remember that domestic violence affects people of all ages, race, and class.
  • Check your local domestic violence laws: Who is protected, which offenses are covered by the law, what kind of court orders can victims ask for? Are your states’ laws on par with those in other states?
  • How are local advocates addressing local challenges? Are they? Is there a specific case, a specific victim, who could help you illustrate the bigger picture (such as Johanna Orozco, the main subject of the Plain Dealer’s Dart Award-winning series “Johanna: Facing Forward,” who helped illustrate how common intimate partner violence was in her Cleveland community.)

Be conscientious when working with victims and survivors

  • As you approach victims and survivors, make sure you are honest about what you want to do. Explain that they need to share their story in detail; what will happen to the information they give you; what the major angle of the reporting will be; when the story is expected to be published or broadcast etc.
  • Do the extra legwork and take the time to find victims who are in the right place, physically and emotionally, to share their stories. Don’t push anyone who is not ready. No story is worth re-traumatizing, or even endangering a survivor.
  • Before you talk to victims, find out about your news organization’s policies regarding sharing quotes or entire articles before publication. Many reporters have discovered that for them, the rules change when working with victims of trauma. Dart award winners Rachel Dissell, Rob Perez and Kristen Lombardi all share what they want to publish with their subjects: depending on the project, some read the quotes, some summarize the quotes, some allow access to the entire production.
  • When you set up interviews, give victims some control over the location, who else will be there, how they want to structure the conversation. Be kind. Journalists can be compassionate without being advocates.
  • Don’t be afraid of pulling out your notebook or even a microphone for an interview. While this can seem awkward in a conversation discussing intimate subjects, these tools are an important reminder for the survivor that the conversation is an interview and that you are in fact reporting. (For more tips on interviewing, see tip sheet III, The Interview.)
  • As you follow your story idea, think beyond the visible wounds: How are people’s lives affected? What is it like to live in a shelter, with a secret address, in fear of your partner? How do victims sleep? Can they even find work? Do they still see friends? How are family members responding?
  • Make sure you stay open to the victim’s experience. For example, you may think a story is about recovering from severe injuries when for the victim, the injuries are not the problem but building a different life is.
  • Be ready for complexity. Victims are rarely saints. A survivor’s life choices, or previous experiences, however, do not diminish the crime that was committed. Don’t blame a victim because she had a history of getting involved with the wrong men. The responsibility lies not with women who feel trapped in abusive relationships but with men who injure, sexually assault or murder them.

Stay on top of challenges

  • Is the story changing as you go deeper? Make sure to keep your editors in the loop as you discover new aspects or developments.
  • Be aware of the speed and reach of social media. In a recent domestic violence case in Massachusetts, a reporter shared via Twitter the address of a victim who lived in an undisclosed location, thinking this was the fastest way to inform a colleague. It was also the fastest way to inform the abuser. Remember that it is never OK to share information that can reveal the location or identity of a victim unless authorized by the victim.
  • Working with victims and researching stories of intimate partner violence can be draining. Make sure you are not working in isolation: talk to friends or colleagues, build your own support group. (For more Dart Center resources on the emotional impact this work can have, see our self-care page.)
  • You may encounter people who accuse you of having an agenda; inside and outside the newsroom. Refer them to the data about intimate partner violence and how it affects communities (see The Basics) that underscore why this is an important story to tell.