Tacoma Shootings Intensify Debate

When Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot his wife, Crystal Brame, then himself, on the afternoon of April 26, the assault/suicide intensified public debate about the responsibilities of individuals, law enforcement, and media in combating domestic violence.

The shootings in a shopping center parking lot left David Brame dead, Crystal Brame critically injured with a bullet wound to the head, and many questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.

Within hours, some in the Tacoma Police Department made statements blaming media coverage of the Brame's divorce proceedings for pushing Brame toward violence. Others, including victims' advocates, have countered that such accusations minimize domestic violence and downplay the responsibility of the abuser.

Cathy Bullock, a Utah State University professor who has researched news media representations of domestic violence, believes news coverage of the Brame case has potential to increase public awareness of vital issues.

"We're already seeing coverage that openly discusses the idea that this was a domestic violence crime and that describes Crystal Brame's experience as a victim," wrote Bullock in email correspondence with the Dart Center.

Local newspapers have published extensive coverage of the Brame story this week, including articles chronicling David Brame's background, the actions of the police department, and broader issues involving domestic violence.

Tacoma News Tribune columnist Kathleen Merryman, for instance, has written columns about appropriate responses to domestic violence (see City should have heeded Chief Brame's warning signals and Brame tragedy creates a climate for a domestic peace initiative).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has published news articles, columns, and opinion pieces addressing various implications of domestic violence (see Warning signs were there, advocates for victims say, Brame case offers lessons for helping battered women and Date-rape allegation haunted chief).

Bullock noted that such coverage, acknowledging such crimes as domestic violence and focusing on the experiences of victims, is relatively uncommon, according to her research results. In a study co-authored by Bullock and Jason Cubert, both Dart Center research assistants at the time of the analysis, less than 23 percent of 230 newspaper articles analyzed used labels such as "domestic violence" or "domestic abuse."

"That means more than two-thirds of the articles tended not to develop the idea that the case involved domestic violence," wrote Bullock. "So, the small sample of coverage I've seen on the Brame case is already ahead in some respects."

However, Bullock added, some media coverage has suggested that either media coverage, or Crystal Brame herself, shared blame for the crime. Bullock's research results indicated that shifting blame away from the attacker is not uncommon. Almost 48 percent of the articles studied suggested either motivation, or an excuse, for the attacker, while 17 percent blamed the victim.

Some coverage of the Brame case has also emphasized that no one in the Tacoma Police Department saw warning signs of the chief's final act of violence, said Bullock. "This taps into one of the common misconceptions about domestic violence," she wrote, "that abusers should be easily identifiable.

"We found this frame in the Washington state study," she explained. "In some articles, people expressed surprise because the person who committed the violence seemed normal . Some early coverage of the Brame case seems to be presenting the misconception (that perpetrators should be easily identified)."

Yet the Brame case may offer an avenue for greater understanding of domestic violence issues. Since the attacker was a well-known public official, the shootings happened in a public place with the couple's children nearby, and the victim remains hospitalized in a coma, ongoing coverage is likely, Bullock pointed out.

"Such factors will ensure that coverage will not stop after the initial story," Bullock wrote, "that coverage will continue as the story evolves."

In such a high-profile case, journalists will have an opportunity to cover the story in greater depth. "We should, in theory anyway, get deeper coverage that moves beyond the crime at hand to broader issues connected with domestic violence," Bullock wrote.

"We should start to see interviews with family members, friends, and (in an ideal world) domestic violence workers."