You Are Not a Family Man If You Kill Your Family: A Primer on Writing About Domestic Violence

When you quote at length the abuser’s friend’s “side” of the incident, talk about the victim’s college transcripts, or her employment record, you are participating in some good old-fashioned victim blaming.
Publish date:
December 13, 2012
media, domestic violence, reporting

Earlier this month, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins was shot nine times by her boyfriend Jovan Belcher. Perkins’ death received wall-to-wall coverage because Belcher was a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. I read the dozens of tone-deaf articles, and I felt like I wandered into the Red Room in Twin Peaks. Everyone was speaking in a shady language, and no one addressed the obvious question.

It filled me with an impotent, Eleanor-Holmes-Norton-style rage.

Most pieces focused on the “trauma” of Belcher’s suicide, Bob Costas made the story about gun control, and Deadspin published a bunch of quotes calling Perkins the catalyst. Even Ben Greenman at The New Yorker -- who can usually do no wrong by me -- tweeted that he couldn’t believe that everyone was talking about concussions and not about steroids. No one mentioned domestic violence.

The (lack of) coverage particularly hits home because I used be a public relations specialist at a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City. I used to know this community.

It was days before someone wrote about Belcher’s history of domestic violence, and even then it was called “trouble at home.”

This kind of reporting is unacceptable. There’s a better way to cover a problem that hurts a woman every 15 seconds in this country. Let’s all get out of the Red Room.

1. If you are writing a story about someone killing or abusing his or her partner, you are writing about domestic violence.

Call it what it is. If you only report these acts as random or solitary incidents, and not part of a long entrenched history of partner violence in this county, then you aren’t giving the full weight of how insidious and ingrained this problem is in our culture.

Don’t speculate about what could have caused this tragedy and how could this happen without mentioning domestic violence. When the violence is only directed at one person -- the partner -- he is not out of control, he chooses to be violent and who he is violent with. Belcher did not shoot his mother, or the security guard, or anyone at the stadium -- all of whom he encountered after killing Perkins. He only shot his girlfriend.

2. Do not report from the lens of the abuser.

If you are reporting about a murder-suicide, lead with the murder.

If you are reporting about a murder-suicide, don’t focus on how the suicide could have been prevented. When someone kills his partner, the focus should be on how the domestic violence could have been prevented. The victim did not get to choose.

If you mention the abuser’s name in the first sentence, mention the victim’s name.

Do not write a headline calling the victim a baby mamma, or only show pictures of the abuser in your slideshow.

Interview someone from the victim’s side; don’t dredge up the abuser’s high school coach just to get a quote about what a swell guy he was.

Don’t make domestic violence about gun control.

Don’t laud someone who just shot the mother of his child as being a “family man.” A FAMILY MAN DOES NOT KILL HIS FAMILY.

3. If you report from the lens of the abuser, you are participating in victim blaming.

When you quote at length the abuser’s friend’s “side” of the incident, talk about the victim’s college transcripts, or her employment record, you are participating in some good old-fashioned victim blaming. This is not “getting the other side.” There are not two sides to domestic violence.

When you write about a “heated argument… stemming” from something the victim did, and you mention that it happened right before the incident, you are also participating in pretty standard victim blaming. Your syntax is suggesting that SHE was the catalyst. Especially, if you report that the victim “had been drinking” and “came home late.” Newsflash: These are not reasons to kill someone.

4. Educate yourself.

Do some research, interview some domestic violence experts, or at least Google some statistics. If you do even a small amount of research, you might be able to say something about *why* this happened, instead of quoting friends and colleagues who “didn’t see this coming.” Domestic violence is not inexplicable. It’s a product of someone controlling and dominating another person. It’s perpetuated by a culture of entitlement and misogyny, and we keep that kind of culture alive when we don’t call it what it is.

Here are some statistics that you might find with one Google search:

5. Don’t feed the “it came out of nowhere” storyline.

Abusers are historically good at hiding their abuse. They often isolate their partners from support systems. A major reason that victims are afraid to leave their abusers is because they think that no one will believe them. An abuser can be involved in “charity work” and still abuse women. They can be poor, wealthy, educated, lazy, successful, “articulate,” religious, and still abuse women.

6. This is not a women’s issue.

A friend of mine said that he doesn’t expect a Sports Illustrated article to be “heavy on domestic violence coverage.” What he meant was this isn’t a Sport Illustrated issue. But because sports culture can breed an environment that glorifies power, it is especially important for a sports-focused publication to call this domestic violence. This is the second time someone affiliated with the Chiefs has shot his partner and committed suicide. In four months.

Thisis asportsissue. This is an every-single-one-of-us issue.

Whether you are writing for ESPN, Deadspin, the New York Times, the Kansas City Star, you should be talking about it. People who almost exclusively read sports publications may have never been confronted with the real issues of domestic violence, and it’s important to stick it in front of their noses. If someone reads that a linebacker shot himself, they might automatically assume it’s an injury-related suicide. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to fill in the details and tell the full story.

Until our culture figures out how to teach men (and women) a healthy way to process emotions -- and that we do not have the right to control, abuse or kill people that we love -- we are going to have to keep writing a similar headline.

7. Most importantly, mention where victims of domestic violence can get help.

All you need to do is copy/paste this: If you, or someone you know, is a victim of domestic violence, call the National Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.