Tired of reporting fraught with double standards and a blame-the-victim mentality, a coalition of women's rights advocates in San Francisco decided to study daily press coverage of violence against women. Barbara Johnson, an independent media critic who frequently works with FAIR, conducted an eight-month study of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner's coverage of domestic violence cases that resulted in death.
The survey documented that "many myths about domestic violence are perpetrated in news reports" and that most reporting focuses only on the most sensational details.
One disturbing pattern uncovered was that white male perpetrators were frequently described in positive terms. For instance, a man who shot and killed his ex-wife and then hurled his daughter off the Golden Gate Bridge was referred to as "a sweetheart," a "loving father," and "a hell of a nice guy." A man who shot and killed both his children was called "a loving father."
Johnson wrote that many statements about the perpetrators "had an overly sympathetic quality and implied an element of victimization of the murderers, either by circumstances or frequently by the adult female," such as one killer's mother describing her son as "a victim of divorce." A source said of another assailant, "To him [marriage] was a sacrosanct institution and to violate it was the end of his world."
The descriptions were largely determined by the reporters' choice of quotes, with the assailant and his family used prominently as sources. Both papers used police as their most frequent source--the Examiner used police sources five times more than any other source. Domestic violence experts were quoted in only one quarter of the cases studied.
The over-reliance on police sources led to an abundance of quotes that trivialized domestic violence as less serious or dangerous than other violence. The Examiner quoted a police officer saying that "most families just need a referee." A cop in the Chronicle referred to police being "called to the home to settle domestic spats."
The study found that the male perpetrator's sexual jealousy was often presented as explaining or excusing violent action. For instance, an Examiner subheadline read: "Police Say Jealousy Led Man to Take His Children Hostage, Kill Them, Then Commit Suicide." "Antioch Cops Trace Rage to Seeing Wife, Boyfriend," a Chronicle headline stated.
The survey found a racial double standard. When the perpetrator was a person of color, violence was presented as expected and typical. When the perpetrator was white, the violence was presented as unexpected, out of character or inexplicable, as when the Chronicle included the quote, "Things like this don't happen in Fremont."
When men of color were the perpetrators, their descriptions were overwhelmingly in negative terms. The words "domestic violence" virtually never appeared in coverage of the cases involving European-American couples, but was used repeatedly in coverage of non-white couples.
Barbara Johnson also completed a seven-month study on the two paper's coverage of sexual assault. The study documented the undercoverage of rape, particularly acquaintance rape. It also found that the primary source for information about the rape survivor was the accused rapist or his lawyer.
The coalition of women's rights advocates who commissioned the studies reported the findings to editors and reporters at the Chronicle. The journalists acknowledged that they needed a new formula for reporting on violence against women (Bay Guardian, 4/13/94). The coalition suggested that domestic violence and sexual assault experts be used to balance police quotes, that domestic violence be reported the same for white couples as minority couples, and that stories be placed in an overall context. Reporters were also encouraged to be more aware of source selection and descriptions of victims and perpetrators.
Activists in the Bay Area continue to monitor coverage. If changes don't occur they have a lot more media activism in mind. "All we are asking is that they report fairly," says Johnson. "If coverage doesn't change, it will mobilize the community.... We will do whatever it takes to ensure that women are treated fairly."
Kim Deterline is a media activist trainer based in the Bay Area. To obtain copies of the studies (available for $8 each), contact Barbara Johnson at 415-641-7271.