The Product: Writing With Insight, Accuracy and Context

This tipsheet, building on the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," advises reporters on writing more accurate and effective stories.

The most important element of insightful reporting on intimate partner violence is context. While spectacular cases may hit the news and attract attention, they are rarely inexplicable, unpredictable tragedies. Journalists have a responsibility to tell domestic violence stories for what they are: a widespread phenomenon.

Too often, however, news coverage fails to do so: various studies have shown that on average less than 30 percent of stories on domestic violence homicides mention that abuse at home is a common problem. In a 2010 University of Hartford study, 99 out of 100 newspaper articles on IPV published between 2000 and 2003 failed to include any statistics on intimate partner violence, and 100 out of 100 articles failed to discuss community and prevention details. In the same study, every third story suggested an excuse for the abuser and almost every fifth story included language that blamed the victim.

This tip sheet helps reporters avoid these and other traps, and to craft more accurate and effective stories on how intimate partner violence affects people and their lives.

1) Double-check stereotypes, distinguishing explanations from excuses

Especially in breaking news reporting, reporters often must boil down a crime and the little that is known about what caused it to a few quick sentences. To do so, we too often rely on stereotypes and simplifications.  What distinguishes a merely-adequate news story on an incident of intimate partner violence from a great one is how thoroughly writers and editors consider how our choice of words may inadvertently reconfirm myths about such incidents.

For example, when trying to explain what led to a crime, journalists often use language that is meant to explain the violence, but ends up excusing it or making it sound inevitable. How often have you read a story which reports, in essence: “According to friends and family members, their relationship had been troubled for years. It was as if there was no way out of the downward spiral.”

In fact, there are many ways out of the downward spiral – many potential points of intervention offered by local shelters, advocacy groups, legal protection and counseling. Instead of confirming hopelessness, our narratives offer an opportunity to communicate an alternative to isolation. News reports can easily put the fact that one crime could not be prevented in the context of local efforts to prevent others. Even if you have no time on a breaking story, the sentence could read “According to friends and family members, their relationship had been troubled for years. It is typical for partners in abusive relationships to feel as if there was no way out of the downward spiral. Local advocates, such as [local shelter or group] are trying to change this.”

2) Develop accurate characterizations

Continuing with a closer look at stereotypes, let’s consider common characterizations included in almost all domestic violence stories: We describe the victim, the abuser, their relationship, and the crime. In each of these descriptions, we can fall for easy myths: we portray the victim as “complicated”, the abuser as a “decent man.” We label their relationship as a “romance-gone-bad” and the crime as a “crime of passion.”

Again, these stereotypes reconfirm misleading images about the dynamics of abusive relationships. They fail to inform the public that otherwise-decent men can be abusers. They fail to accurately portray the relationship as one in which the struggle for power and control by one partner led to abuse of the other; and that intimate partner violence is not a passionate overreaction but learned behavior.

It is more relevant to report on if and how the victim has sought help before; if the abuser had a history of violence in this or other relationships;  and if there were patterns of controlling behavior in the relationship. (See The Legwork for advice on how to research this.) It is important to determine if an incident of IPV was not an isolated event but the endpoint in a pattern of abuse that is more common than many realize.

3) Putting biased sources in context

As any crime reporter will know, there are always friends and neighbors who will portray an abuser as a kind, giving, supportive person; and a victim as conflicted, faulty, somehow to blame. And in the aftermath of a horrific crime, communities often are in shock and may perceive the incident as an anomaly – whether or not that is the case.

While these are biased views, we cannot always ignore them in our stories. They reflect how a community thinks and feels about an event that has temporarily upset its balance. What is most important here is that such statements are not included naively, without context. It is important to strike a balance between the presumption of innocence and putting domestic violence allegations in context. Each news story about a single incident of intimate partner violence also shapes the public’s understanding of the broader context and issues.

For example, instead of just quoting a friend of an alleged abuser saying ‘He is so gentle and mellow. I do not think he is capable of hurting anyone,’ begin with “As is often the case when domestic violence strikes a community, people close to [name of abuser] could not believe that the person they knew so well was capable of committing a crime. ‘He is so gentle and mellow. I do not think he is capable of hurting anyone,’ said [abuser’s friend.] However, it is not unusual for men who offend at home to show a different, kinder face to the public, says domestic violence expert [name.]” 

Or, instead of simply quoting a family member of an abuser who killed both his wife and children as saying ‘He took them with him because he loved them so very much,” put the quote in context by adding that abusive relationships are often romanticized by victims, family and close friends; and that friends and family may see early warning signs as indicators of a close and loving relationship.

If used carefully, biased comments can help the public understand why the problem of intimate partner violence persists.

4) Make sure to include experts, resources

Unless it is the first hours of a breaking news story, there is no excuse for not including expert voices and contextual information on intimate partner violence in your stories. A few things to consider:

  • Remember that there are several kinds of agendas involved: from advocates who fight for women’s rights to local law enforcement and prosecution following up on crimes to mental health professionals treating victims and abusers to academics who analyze the phenomenon. Try to have more than one of these sources in your narrative. (See The Legwork for questions to ask.)
  • Make sure your story has at least one statistic providing local context, such as last year’s number of domestic violence calls to the police or how many victims have needed shelter.  If you regularly report on police, courts or families, keep these statistics at hand for use with breaking news.
  • It does not take more than one sentence to include common warning signs such as jealousy, controlling behavior, isolation, cruelty to children, verbal abuse.
  • If it does not fit in the story, add sidebar with contact information for the local domestic violence hotline and other resources.

5) Balancing crimes and causes

For those who have been on the crime beat for a while, watching the cycle of violence play out over and over again can be deafening. Sometimes, we encounter domestic violence homicides where it is clear that the abuser was also a victim—for example, a teen who had been abused at home himself. The more we research what drives intimate partner violence, the less clear cut the story may seem. After all, almost half of all abusers have also been victims. There is a reason experts tell us this is a learned behavior.

If you have the time and space, teen dating violence might be one good angle into a feature on how intimate partner violence is passed along among generations. Another angle might be support groups for abusers. The trap lies in trying to bring naïve balance into an immediate story about a domestic violence crime. When covering ongoing cases, it is important to put the responsibility where it belongs: to the abuser. Even if explanations of how people turn into abusers are not intended to excuse the crime, they resonate with permissive attitudes and blame society for the actions of individuals. Better to address the issue in separate stories, with the space it needs to be covered accurately and insightful.

6) Consider narrative choices

Especially in enterprise and investigative reporting, consider who your primary audience is for the project and how that impacts how you will present the content. For example, The Cleveland Plain Dealer decided that Rachel Dissell would write her entire series on teen dating violence on the level of 5th graders, so it would be accessible to an audience at the center of the story.

Narrative choices can also mean selecting material to leave out in the interests of victims and their families. For instance, make sure you do not publish information that could reveal the location of a victim protected by a restraining order.

7) Prepare the protagonists of your stories for what’s coming

  • Once the story is produced, double check with victims that you have not included a detail that is not essential to the narrative but emotionally upsetting for them. Often, preventing harm is about taking the extra time to check how the produced story or series affects those whose stories you are telling.
  • Call your subjects when you know the publication dates so they can emotionally prepare for it.
  • Be aware of the impact post-publication online commenting can have on your subjects. Set up an account for reader feedback but consider blocking unfiltered comments, which often repeat misconceptions and unnecessarily expose the victim.