Media Coverage Of Violence Against Women Is Due For A Reckoning

Coverage of violence against women remains detached and exploitative — and, in the case of Black and Indigenous women, almost nonexistent.
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Illustration: Anson Chan

Earlier this month, singer Tory Lanez went on trial for allegedly shooting Grammy-winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

In July 2020, the two were leaving Kylie Jenner’s home when Megan says Lanez shot her in the foot, telling her to “Dance, bitch.” He pleaded not guilty to felony assault with a semiautomatic firearm, possessing a loaded, unregistered firearm in a vehicle and using a firearm and inflicting great bodily injury.

Months later, the singer put out an album in which he lodged a barrage of insults in Megan’s direction — the day after news broke that the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor would not be charged. Lanez’s unapologetic misogyny threw salt on the wounds of Black women everywhere.

Amid the quick hits about the grotesquely timed and vitriolic album, streetwear blog Highsnobiety took an incredibly rare stance.

“This is the last time we will cover Tory Lanez,” the blog declared in September 2020 to rounds of cyber commendations.

“The rapper just added to his list of disgraceful behavior by dropping the most toxic album of the year,” Highsnobiety’s statement read. “He recently became a music industry pariah after Megan Thee Stallion revealed that he shot her during an incident that led to his arrest on July 12. However, rather than publicly apologizing to Megan or addressing the issue, he released an album instead, using the media attention from the shooting to promote his work.”

The outlet was widely praised for the decision, but there were no similar public pledges from other publications.

Highsnobiety stood alone in its response.

Media outlets rarely take such a definitive position against misogyny, even when it becomes violent. Coverage of violence against women remains detached and exploitative — and, in the case of Black and Indigenous women, almost nonexistent.

HuffPost spoke to experts on violence against women and domestic violence survivors to pinpoint exactly where media goes wrong with its reporting — and the lack thereof.

The Celebrity Of It All

Highsnobiety’s statement demonstrated how celebrities have become the vehicle through which moral codes can be established. But that the majority of culture-focused outlets chose to instead capitalize off this misogynistic incident showed the inverse as well: celebrity culture also reflects society’s worst structures.

In mid-November 2021, a video showing former NFL player Zac Stacy assaulting his ex-girlfriend circulated among media outlets. The Daily Mail placed the video, which showed him striking his ex-girlfriend before throwing her into a television, front and center on its homepage. The tabloid’s forcible and exploitative use of the video was just one snapshot of how the media still gets it wrong in its coverage of domestic violence.

During Stacy’s arrest, he told police that his ex-girlfriend “staged” the assault, and the majority of articles about the footage focused on his outlandish claim about his ex. Meanwhile, the footage also showed the arresting officers bemoaning the former running back’s retirement as they detained him — an alarming interaction that few outlets covered.

The former angle homed in on the drama of the situation rather than interrogating the cavalier attitude of the law enforcement officials toward an accused abuser. And while most reasonable individuals would have a hard time fathoming Stacy’s claim that the assault was “staged” as indication of anything other than him having a history of abuse, the widespread reporting around the claim nonetheless gave the retired NFL player — who, by status and gender, already had a greater advantage — a chance to control the narrative.

Years before the Stacy video went viral, the NFL appeared to undergo a reckoning on domestic violence. Between 2012 and 2014, there were 15 known domestic violence cases involving players in the league. Between 2014 and 2015, three well-established athletes — Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy — were all accused of domestic violence. Many sports critics and survivor advocates highlighted the NFL’s “domestic violence problem.” And while the statistics prove the pattern, scholar Chris B. Geyerman found the compartmentalization to be problematic.

“The media coverage of these cases diverted attention away from domestic violence as a widespread social problem and set up a dynamic which allowed the NFL to attribute its domestic violence problem to ignorance and reposition itself as part of the solution,” Geyerman wrote in a paper titled “The NFL’s ‘Violence Against Women Problem’: Media Framing and The Perpetuation of Domestic Abuse.”

Stacy’s attack — and those of other male celebrities against women — was ultimately treated by news media as an isolated celebrity saga. And recent history shows that, should Stacy ever want to return to the limelight, he’ll likely enjoy the luxury of a short-term media memory.

In a tape released a few months after his June 2018 death, late rapper XXXTentacion admitted to domestic abuse and other cruel acts of violence against an ex-girlfriend.

“She fell through on every occasion until now,” he said of the woman on the tape obtained by Pitchfork. “Until I started fucking her up, bruh.”

But the admission didn’t deter Forbes, Rolling Stone, Yahoo and a handful of other publications from praising his posthumous musical milestones. His “Sad!” single reached 1 billion streams on Spotify one year after his death, and five of his previously unreleased tracks premiered as NFTs last May. Similarly, Chris Brown — who admitted to violently attacking then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009 and has been the subject of a series of accusations involving assaults on women since — enjoyed publicity by a handful of publications.

This June 25, 2014, file photo shows singer Chris Brown arriving at the D.C. Superior Court in Washington.
This June 25, 2014, file photo shows singer Chris Brown arriving at the D.C. Superior Court in Washington.
via Associated Press

The singer was actually just accused of physically attacking another woman this past July. By early November, he’d begun receiving coverage around his new food endeavor.

Black And Indigenous Women Bear The Brunt Of Domestic Violence, But It’s Not Their Faces You’re Seeing

When details around the disappearance and, later, death of white social media influencer Gabrielle Petito pointed toward domestic abuse, it prompted a media conversation around intimate partner violence. Her story dominated the news cycle for several weeks.

Slain 26-year-old mother Destini Smothers was found in the trunk of a car in March 2021, but didn’t galvanize the same media attention. Prior to the discovery of her body, she’d been missing for four months.

Her son told law enforcement officials that he’d heard his father and Smothers’ boyfriend, Kareem Flake, tell Smothers on several occasions that he was going to kill her. But Smothers’ death couldn’t have spurred any broad conversations around domestic violence because her disappearance and subsequent killing were hardly covered in the first place.

A Google News search for articles on Destini Smothers yields two pages of news article links; the same search for Petito offers 17 pages of content.

There are “many white Gabby Petitos are out there,” Mary, a 59-year-old domestic violence survivor who is being identified by her first name for privacy reasons, told HuffPost. “And twice as many Black Gabby Petitos are out there. And three times as many Indigenous Gabby Petitos are out there, and somehow, those lives, those women’s lives, don’t matter as much.”

Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a man than white women, according to the Blackburn Center, an anti-violence organization. But even when those cases do get covered, they still reek of bias.

A 2016 University of Maryland study found that when the news media reports on domestic violence incidents in which a Black female celebrity has been victimized, coverage is more likely to attempt to rationalize the perpetrator’s behavior.

How Media Can Right Its Wrongs

Last January, musician FKA twigs sued her ex-boyfriend, actor Shia LeBouf, for abuse. In an interview with “CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King, the singer was asked the famously fruitless question of why she stayed.

“I think we just have to stop asking that question,” FKA twigs told King, who acknowledged she was uncertain about whether the question was even appropriate in conversations with survivors. “I know that you’re asking it out of love, but I’m just gonna make a stance and say that I’m not gonna answer that question anymore because the question should really be to the abuser, ‘Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?’ You know?”

“People say, ’Oh, it can’t have been that bad because or else she would’ve left,” the musician continued. “It’s like, ‘No. Because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.’”

Dr. Pamela Nettleton, a media studies professor at the University of St. Thomas, has studied portrayals of domestic violence in magazines and said that questioning why survivors didn’t leave their relationships sooner is indicative of toxic cultural attitudes around abuse.

“Female victims are blamed for being victims. This allows the roles of gender and power to be overlooked in considering the social problem of domestic violence, [it] repositions the issue as a woman’s private problem,” she wrote in a 2011 study, citing a theory from sociologist Nancy Berns.

“Media is reflecting how we think and talk about this and long held historic attitudes about male violence against women,” Nettleton told HuffPost. “So it’s social too, it’s not just that the media do it, but we hold women responsible for the violence that men do. And we ask how come she didn’t know he would be violent.”

As King’s question exemplified, that troubling framing holding victims responsible for their own abuse is hardly exclusive to men.

Beyond broad questions and story angles, Nettleton’s research shows major problems with the language the media uses when it covers violence against women.

“We gender the victim and we degender the cause. We almost don’t even talk about men. Women are just somehow mysteriously beaten and killed,” she told HuffPost. “That’s how we talk about it. ‘Violence against women.’ We don’t say ‘male violence.’”

In headlines, passive and indirect language — particularly the failure to reference perpetrators — is frequent. For example, in September, a Palm Beach man shot his wife and then himself, but The Palm Beach Post’s headline placed no onus on him: “Palm Beach Gardens couple died in murder-suicide in July, police say.” In 2021, the headline on an NBC Boston article about the arrest of a man for beating his domestic partner to death made no reference to him at all: “Death Of Mass. Woman Beaten On Maine Beach Ruled A Homicide.”

Mary finds this language troublesome.

“Yeah, it was a murder-suicide, but it was [also] domestic violence and we don’t use those words,” she said.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 72% of murder-suicides are domestic violence-related. The Palm Beach couple previously referred to fought over a lost pet prior to the husband killing his wife and turning the gun on himself. But that gutting trajectory, from an otherwise trivial argument to spousal homicide, was couched in passive language. Editorial choices like the aforementioned continually fail to sound the alarm on domestic violence.

Another common occurrence in coverage of domestic violence, Mary says, are interviews with clueless friends, relatives and neighbors after a heinous crime has taken place.

She said the sound bites aren’t adding anything to the narrative.

“When you’re covering crimes, don’t talk to the neighbors. Abusers are famously ‘street angels,’” she said. “They’re charismatic, important in the community and, in the case of families, they’re surrounded by their enablers, whose primary focus is to protect each other at all costs and deflect the shame and avoid the scandal exacted upon the family.”

Janeva, another domestic abuse survivor who is going by her first name to protect her privacy, added, “Abusers are as good at making allies as they are at making victims.”

Though at least one in four women in the nation experience domestic violence, per the CDC, news media tends to limit its coverage to only the most tragic or high-profile domestic violence cases.

“The media tends to lean towards what will draw viewers and make headlines,” New York therapist Shannon McHugh said. “More often than not, it’s violence that sells, and those who have experienced trauma can be left paying the price.”

And no matter how thoughtfully it’s packaged, the mere presence of domestic violence coverage can trigger survivors. When that happens, McHugh suggests three strategies: Practice mindfulness through visualization techniques and box breathing to “remind yourself that you are safe;” learn to self-soothe by taking notice of the intricate details of a nearby object like a ball or keys; and allow for temporary self-distraction to return to the triggering circumstance with clearer head later on.

But the media — and the many institutions influenced by it — still has to play its part. It doesn’t hold the power to eradicate domestic violence, but it can certainly aid in establishing it as an everyone problem.

“We need to focus on actually changing the system,” said Kathleen, a survivor. “Or making sure the system is actually doing what the system is supposed to do. Rather than just focusing on the drama of, ‘She’s dead now.’”

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