Understanding Patterns of Domestic Violence

Here, Cathy Bullock, a communications educator and researcher, offers her perspective on the case of John Brian Peck; a case that sparked debate over the media's reporting of domestic violence.

North Carolina Tragedy Underscores Need for Knowledge

On May 30, 2004, the Wilmington Star-News ran a story examining admission standards at University of North Carolina, focusing on student John Brian Peck who had a criminal record and was reportedly harassing and stalking his former girlfriend, Christen Naujoks. Later that week, Peck shot and killed Naujoks — then fled. He died a few days later after apparently shooting himself during a confrontation with police. The case sparked debate over the media's reporting of domestic violence. Here, Cathy Bullock, a communications educator and researcher, offers her perspective.

As I’ve thought about the Star-News and John B. Peck’s murder of Christen Naujoks, I keep coming back to advice newspaperman Ron Thornburg gives my introductory media class. When faced with an ethics decision at the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, Thornburg tells students, he starts by finding out all the facts he can.

In the Peck case, that means more than understanding the ins and outs of the University’s admissions policies, the context for Peck’s criminal convictions, and the reasons why Peck’s Naujok’s mother didn’t want names used in the article. For those covering domestic violence-related stories, like the Peck case, it also means understanding domestic violence and its patterns.

I don’t know what discussions took place among Star-News reporters and editors before the May 30 article ran, and I pass no judgment on their news decisions. In the days since Peck killed his ex-girlfriend, the newspaper has shed light on the circumstances of Peck’s earlier convictions as well as on the strengths and shortcomings of restraining orders — important information that helps readers make sense of the disturbing events.

However, there seems to be something lacking in newspaper coverage in general when it comes to domestic violence fatalities. I’ve studied coverage of such cases by newspapers in Washington state and Utah. While there were exceptions in both states, the coverage tended to present common misconceptions about domestic violence.

I suspect this is due in part to the time and other constraints of newspaper work. However, I still wonder how well reporters and editors understand the social ill they’re writing about. If they don’t understand domestic violence — what it is, the characteristics that set it apart from other forms of interpersonal violence, its patterns — they’re not bringing all the relevant facts to bear when they’re faced with questions about how to handle the coverage (see, for instance, Restraining Order Issue).

For example, it’s worth knowing that experts believe domestic violence is about the abuser’s need to dominate and control; that it often (but not always) plays out as a repeating cycle of tension-building then violence then remorse; that abusers may shift the blame for their actions to others.

The more I learn about domestic violence, the more I appreciate the fact that abusers have their own way of looking at relationships and don’t necessarily share others’ ideas about what’s logical and reasonable.

Granted, knowing more about domestic violence isn’t a fix-all that will allow reporters and editors to predict with certainty what abusers will do next or what effect coverage will have on their actions. But understanding domestic violence would allow journalists to better evaluate what’s at stake and better judge the possible consequences of coverage — not to mention better inform readers about an important social problem.

As Thornburg suggests, understanding the facts surrounding the issue is the first step in making sound ethical decisions about coverage.

Many sources of information about domestic violence are available. For basic information, a list of domestic violence-related organizations, suggested readings, and other information, see the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Web site at www.ncadv.org.