Resources for Reporters, Editors, and Media Professionals
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has created this guide as a resource for reporters and storytellers. While this is not a checklist, it does approach the issues of domestic violence, dating abuse, stalking, and sexual assault with the complexity and context these crimes deserve.
Why do domestic violence stories matter?
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include, but is not limited to, physical violence, financial abuse, and tech-facilitated abuse (read more on forms of abuse here). The impact of domestic violence, including its stigma, can result in lasting trauma. Sharing stories of abuse can help reduce stigmatization, break the silence, let survivors know they are not alone, and inspire policymakers and community leaders to create change.
It is crucial, however, that writers and media use storytelling, story-collecting strategies, imagery, and headlines that are trauma-informed and do not cause harm. Sensationalizing trauma or perpetuating victim-blaming narratives do more harm to survivors and their families.
What considerations are there for reporting on domestic violence?
Do no harm. The goal of any story related to domestic violence should be to promote public health and safety by increasing understanding and awareness of the complex realities of domestic violence. When seeking background information, sources, or further context, start with these two important questions:
- Is there a chance that publishing any of this information could put the survivor(s) in my story at risk?
- Does my story contribute to increasing public health by providing the necessary context to understand domestic violence and resources to get help?
Personal accounts of domestic violence can humanize a story, but this must be done with compassion and thoughtfulness. Allow the survivor to set whatever boundaries they need, and ensure they feel included and respected in every step of the process. Fact-checking stories can put survivors at great risk. Unless given explicit permission by a survivor, never attempt to contact anyone else related to their story – including but not limited to the abuser. If a survivor has asked to remain anonymous, thoroughly check your story for details that may allow someone to discover their identity (e.g., details about their clothing, hometown, job, or family structure, etc.). But, tell any survivor who wishes to remain anonymous that there is no way to entirely guarantee complete anonymity, and respect their right to pull their story if it puts their safety at risk.
Recognize the broader context of domestic violence, and use language of accountability. NNEDV recognizes domestic violence as part of a pattern of abusive and controlling behavior. Not all forms of domestic violence include physical violence, but all are rooted in power and control. These patterns within individual families and relationships also echo broader societal patterns of oppression and inequity.
Studies show that 1 in 3 women in their lifetime will experience some form of domestic violence. Domestic violence also impacts individuals of all genders and sexualities. When telling the stories of domestic violence, these statistics remind us that many people in our lives, and many of the people who are reading those stories, have similar stories. Survivors are part of our readership, community, newsrooms, friends, and family.
Stories often focus on a specific incident, usually physical violence, and do not place it within the broader context of a pattern of abuse. This can reinforce the notion that domestic violence only includes physical abuse and that these incidents are isolated. When researching violent incidents, it is critical that reporters:
- Look for past patterns of abuse, including past restraining orders, calls to the police, or other information of public record.
- Avoid including statements from parties who may not be aware of the complexities of how domestic violence appears to outsiders (e.g., “I never heard anything.” or “He was never a mean co-worker.”) These character references are irrelevant and often are included to minimize the violence.
- Additionally, place the behavior in the larger context of violence in society, including the fact that domestic violence is a public health crisis.
- Acknowledge the systems of racism, misogyny, and structural inequality that create a society where domestic violence is often tolerated and victims are routinely disbelieved and silenced, particularly victims who are already marginalized by these same structures.
Use language of accountability when applicable (For example, “He threatened her repeatedly with violence,” rather than “She feared his threats.”)
Also, describe domestic violence without sensationalizing it. For example, characterizing an assault as “a domestic dispute” implies mutuality, and it does not reflect the actions of the abuser or the severity of the physical or psychological harm.
Additionally, ensure that headlines and accompanying images also follow these guidelines. Never use photos of injuries (e.g., bruising, casts, etc.) and avoid the use of threatening or menacing imagery and headlines.
What considerations are there for “verifying” a survivor’s story?
Verifying a story may threaten a survivors’ well-being. First, it can put them at risk of retaliation. Additionally, it can reinforce a misconception that survivors cannot be trusted to accurately share stories of their trauma. Therefore, verifying a survivor’s story requires careful consideration. The ethics of verification include the following considerations:
- Identify your reasoning for verifying the survivor’s story. Do you need to verify for legal or ethical reasons? Will it improve your story? Will it, above all, contribute to a greater understanding of the underlying patterns of domestic violence in our society?
- Ensure the survivor’s safety. Do not put survivors in danger, and do not assume any efforts you make to obscure identities are infallible. Reporting on sensational stories that prove later to have reporting and fact-checking errors does indelible harm to survivors and the organizations who support them.
- Reject the “two sides” myth. Domestic violence is a crime. If you are seeking the abuser’s perspective, do not frame it as “the other side” or a chance to “clear their name.” These narratives encourage the myths that domestic violence is often reported falsely, and that a victim’s testimony is “not enough evidence” when it is the most important evidence that a crime has occurred.
Our society has made the “two sides” narrative around crimes like domestic violence common and expected, and it can be difficult to break this convention. Consider how other crimes are reported on, however, and compare it to a domestic violence story. Drunk drivers don’t get to mitigate their crimes because of impaired decision making – neither do abusers. Giving an abuser the opportunity to advance narratives that can cause lasting harm to survivors.
What resources are available for reporters interviewing survivors?
Being trauma-informed may also mean caring for yourself, first and foremost. Processing and reporting on trauma, whether recent or not, can impact your well-being. It is important to note that feeling triggered by a source’s story does not mean a journalist is not impartial.
Use the following trauma-informed interview tips:
- Be aware of your own responses to trauma.
- Know the full context of domestic violence and how to use language of accountability,
- Always reflect what language a survivor is using (e.g., Don’t continue to use the term “survivor” if the subject prefers “victim,” or vice versa.) Listen and reflect the same language they use.
- Never push for additional details, especially of any specifics related to abuse, violence, and assault.
- Let the survivor direct the conversation as much as you can.
While a great deal of journalism and trauma resources focus on disaster and war reporting, more reporters are speaking up about the impact of reporting on rape, abuse, and domestic violence. Below find resources specific to journalists, and see our resources page for general public resources:
- Poynter, “How journalists can take care of themselves while covering trauma”
- Columbia Journalism Review, “Journalists need more help than ever coping with work trauma”
What considerations are there before requesting a survivor to comment on or add to your story?
Domestic violence shelters and nonprofits are frequently hesitant to connect reporters with survivors because it furthers the notion that a story is not worth telling unless there is a moment of trauma for readers to “engage” with. Not only does this tokenize and exploit trauma, it asks readers to take on a great deal of emotional labor that is not always necessary or helpful.
In order to put organizations at ease and to build trust, take the time to explain why a survivor is crucial for your story and how their narrative can advance public health and public good. Be prepared to work with organizations to offer alternative suggestions.
Read this primer from survivors who share their experience with reporters who have gotten it right – and wrong.
Why does language matter when reporting on domestic violence?
Even as the discourse about domestic violence has changed over the past several decades, it is still common to see language in the media that minimizes, sensationalizes, or furthers inaccuracies about the experience of domestic violence.
- Use language of accountability when applicable. For example, “He threatened her repeatedly with violence,” rather than “She feared his threats.” (Note that this is not a legal framing, but accurately depicts how the action occurred.)
- Accurately describe domestic violence without sensationalizing it. For example, characterizing an assault as “a domestic dispute” implies mutuality and does not reflect the actions of the abuser or the severity of the physical or psychological harm. (Note that this is not a legal framing, but an accurate depiction on how the action occurred.)
- Domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, sexual identity, race, ability, or socioeconomic situation. Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, and they are more likely to experience more severe forms of violence. Many communities lack safe access to resources making it harder for some survivors to seek and get help. Be aware of these contexts and write about domestic violence through an inclusive, intersectional lens.
- While many prefer the term “survivors” to describe individuals who have experienced domestic violence because it imparts greater agency and empowerment, this is not every individual’s preference. Additionally, there are legal and policy contexts in which it is more appropriate and accurate to use the term “victim.” Always follow the lead of the person you’re interviewing – agency is empowering.
- Use legal terminology accurately and with accountability. In general, avoid always using “alleged” or “accused”, and instead name the crime and who is reporting it. This resource from the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women gives details examples of ways to talk about an abuser in the context of rape and sexual assault, and it applies equally to domestic violence contexts.
As language shifts and best practices are updated, the most important aspect of telling the stories of domestic violence is to listen to and honor the narratives of survivors.
What other general resources are available?
- The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a useful online tool on best practices that we strongly recommend.
- Columbia Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma has several primers (here and here) on intimate partner violence.
- This research article presents a study about how comments sections on online articles about domestic violence can be used to push back against myths and inaccuracies.
- A series of resources for journalists about the many topics involved in reporting on violence against women.
- A primer for journalists covering sexual assault.
Accurate and fair journalism is essential to creating a more aware and compassionate culture for survivors of domestic violence. Thank you for your work.
Interested in learning more or connecting with a member of the NNEDV communications staff? Reach out to us.
Thank you to The Allstate Foundation for making this guide possible.