[Content note: domestic violence and abuse]
I wrote a Daily Dot piece about how journalists and pundits can do a better job of covering stories about domestic violence.
Until I read Michael Powell’s recent New York Times column about suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, I had no idea that domestic violence could possibly be delivered in a “professional” manner. Powell cleared that up:
Say this for Ray Rice: His left cross was of professional quality, a short, explosive punch. And his fiancée’s head snapped back as if she’d been shot.
You watch that video and you get the national freakout.
Domestic violence is a difficult subject to talk about sensitively. Humor, blame, unsolicited advice, speculation—these are all ways in which people try to ease the discomfort of confronting such a serious thing head-on. But they don’t necessarily lead to a productive or respectful discussion.
In honor of Michael Powell, Brian Kilmeade, and every other journalist and pundit who can’t seem to cover this issue appropriately, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you write about or discuss domestic violence.
1) Extend the benefit of the doubt to the survivor.
When someone is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are always asked by that person’s fans and defenders to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” Generally, this means, “Assume the survivor is lying or very confused” or “Assume the accused had a good reason to do what they did.”
How about giving the benefit of the doubt to the survivor?
Believe the survivor. Assume they are telling the truth unless there’s actually good evidence that they aren’t, because the vast majority of these types of accusations are not false. Assume that they are speaking out because they want safety and justice, not just because they want to “ruin” their abuser’s life or career.
Assume the survivor stayed with their abuser for as long as they did because abusers deliberately make it difficult or even impossible to leave, not because the survivor is somehow weak, stupid, or incompetent.
Assume the survivor was quite aware of the danger that they (and possibly their children) were in and doesn’t need to be patronizingly informed that staying with an abuser can be dangerous. So can trying to leave.
Assume the survivor is the best authority on their own experience.
2) Avoid speculation.
Whenever there’s a high-profile domestic abuse case, journalists and commenters alike love to speculate. Why did the abuser abuse? Why didn’t the survivor leave? What happened to either of them in their childhood that could’ve led to this? Why didn’t the survivor’s family help? Why would the survivor have been attracted to their abuser in the first place?
This amateur psychoanalysis is not useful. At best, it’s a distraction from the important questions: How do we help the survivor? How do we make sure this never happens again? At worst, it spreads misinformation and stereotypes. People especially enjoy speculating about what the survivor might have done to “provoke” the abuse. Did they cheat? Dress “inappropriately?” Say something mean?
Abuse cannot be “provoked.” Abusers know what they’re doing, and they do it intentionally. They may wait for something to happen that they can then attribute the abuse to, but that’s not the same as being “provoked.”
Read the rest here.