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Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders A Longitudinal Experiment in Participatory Communication

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Stressing relation-building and participatory communication approaches, the Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence worked with journalists to develop a best practices handbook on news coverage of domestic violence murders. This study compares print coverage of domestic violence murders prehandbook (1996-1999) and posthandbook (2000-2002). Significant changes include increased labeling of the murder of intimates as domestic violence and doubled usage of advocates as sources. As a result, domestic violence murders, previously framed as unpredictable private tragedies, are more commonly framed posthandbook as social problems warranting public intervention. The authors conclude that relation-building approaches can affect news cultures and public discourse when conducted in conjunction with comprehensive participatory communications strategies.
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10.1177/0886260505282285Journal of Interpersonal ViolenceRyan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders
Changing Coverage of
Domestic Violence
Murders
A Longitudinal Experiment
in Participatory Communication
Charlotte Ryan
University of Massachusetts–Lowell
Boston College
Mike Anastario
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology
Alfredo DaCunha
Boston College
Stressing relation-building and participatory communication approaches, the
Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence worked with journalists to
develop a best practices handbook on news coverage of domestic violence
murders. This study compares print coverage of domestic violence murders
prehandbook (1996-1999) and posthandbook (2000-2002). Significant changes
include increased labeling of the murder of intimates as domestic violence and
doubled usage of advocates as sources. As a result, domestic violence murders,
previously framed as unpredictable private tragedies, are more commonly
framed posthandbook as social problems warranting public intervention. The
authors conclude that relation-building approaches can affect news cultures
and public discourse when conducted in conjunction with comprehensive par-
ticipatory communications strategies.
Keywords: domestic violence; media coverage; social movements; source
analysis
In 1995, Family Violence Prevention Fund communication director Marissa
Ghez (1995) observed, “American society implicitly accepts . . . that
domestic violence is a private,and not a public, concern” (p. 4). To challenge
these attitudes, she urged that domestic violence advocates integrate strong
209
Journal of Interpersonal Violence
Volume 21 Number 2
February 2006 209-228
© 2006 Sage Publications
10.1177/0886260505282285
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communications components into their efforts to reduce and prevent domes-
tic violence.
The following year, concerned that Rhode Island news coverage typically
described domestic violence murders as private, family tragedies, the Rhode
Island Coalition against Domestic Violence (RICADV) launched a compre-
hensive, statewide experiment in participatory communication.1Their objec-
tive was to change news coverage of domestic violence murders.2To accom-
plish this, RICADV worked with journalists in three ways: to identify
difficulties encountered when reporting on domestic violence murders, to
create and disseminate a handbook presenting best journalistic practices, and
to establish ongoing dialogue with the handbook serving as a vehicle. Col-
laborating with RICADV in the experiment were its member agencies
including the survivor group Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships, the
Media Research and Action Project (MRAP), and Sea Change Press.
This article assesses the experiment’s effect on reporter practices and sub-
sequent coverage. First, we define participatory communication, linking it to
the concept of relational ties. We review past findings regarding news cover-
age of domestic violence, and we briefly sketch the handbook intervention.
We then present a quantitative content analysis of print news coverage of
domestic violence murders in Rhode Island before and after the intervention.
In our discussion, we link this study to broader discourses on participatory
communications for social change.
Literature Review
Mass media form the convening systems of modern societies, that is, mass
media host the public discourse that influences public opinion. Because
ideas and policy initiatives that fail to reach relevant publics languish, media
coverage becomes a critical resource for influencing public opinion or mea-
210 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
Authors’Note: Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence (RICADV) direc-
tor of public relations, Karen Jeffreys, and Annette Duke, editor, Sea Change Press,
contributed to the preliminary study and handbook intervention. Karen Jeffreys con-
ducted the journalist interviews and organized the survivor focus group for members
of Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships. RICADV interns Mao Yang and Sarah
DeCataldo helped organize the media sample. We thank RICADV for transcription
and Boston College for supporting Media Research and Action Project (MRAP)
research assistants Bart Beeson, Kalani Killacky, Vanessa Salas, Peter Bowley, and
Lindsey Williamson. MRAP office coordinators Louise Lymperis and Imhotep Al-
Mahdi provided technical support. For helpful criticisms, we thank RICADV execu-
tive director Deborah DeBare, the MRAP seminar, Kevin Carragee, William A.
Gamson, Adria Goodson, Jeff Langstraat, Jordi Trullen, Joanna Pabst, Matt Williams,
Owen Whooley,and the anonymous reviewers of Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
suring public support. Far from being neutral hosts of public discourse, how-
ever, media outlets participate in ongoing policy contests; by choosing whom
to quote and whom to ignore, journalists decide whose accounts count.
Accounts that count gain visibility; their proponents can use that visibility to
gain political ground. Accounts that do not count fail to gain visibility; their
sponsors lose credibility and face marginalization (Gamson, 1992; Ryan,
1991).
Efforts to sponsor a message do not automatically result in coverage by
news outlets. Those marginalized by inequalities of race, class, gender, sexu-
ality, and age and/or those raising perspectives countering dominant views
face serious obstacles in their efforts to become routine sources. To facilitate
quick production and avoid contention, journalists recurrently use sources
widely deemed noncontroversial or reliable, hesitating to cultivate sources
among more easily challenged marginalized constituencies (hooks, 1992;
Huesca, 1996; Ryan, 1996; Van Dijk, 1991).
Moreover, marginalized constituencies often do not launch extensive
efforts to gain coverage. Individuals facing the inequalities described above
rarely contact the media directly. The immigrant denied health benefits does
not write and disseminate a media advisory, nor does the victim of domestic
violence call a press conference. The capacity to communicate via mass
media requires resources well beyond most individuals. This is particularly
true for individuals facing personal crises reinforced by institutionalized
inequalities. In short, introducing and more importantly sustaining alterna-
tive perspectives and voices in mainstream discourse presupposes an organi-
zational sponsor with an institutional infrastructure.
Currently, two streams of social experiments address the need for such an
organizational sponsor. Emerging in the global south are participatory com-
munications models stressing dialogue, relation building, and grassroots em-
powerment.3These models begin with an analysis of structural inequalities
and insist that those directly affected by these inequalities be part of change
efforts (Dagron, 2001; White, Nair, & Ashcroft, 1994). The models ack-
nowledge that, at heart, all social change efforts involve communication—
identifying a problem, brainstorming suggestions, evaluating action
alternatives, mobilizing allies, or resolving internal or coalition conflicts.
Communication is an integral, indispensable, and essential component of
participating in democratic change, celebrating “the right and power to inter-
vene in the social order and change it through political praxis” (Freire, 1994,
p. 12).
Participatory communications models are less common within the global
north, where centralized and privatized media markets present vast barriers
to civic involvement (Croteau & Hoynes, 2001). Marginalized constituen-
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 211
cies in the global north draw on the traditions of domestic social movements
to establish the organizational capacity change public awareness via mass
media (Riano, 1994; Ryan, 1991). As with participatory communication,
social movement models stress strong relational ties (Diani, 2000), coalition
building (Bystydzienski & Schacht, 2001), and collective processes (Kurtz,
2002).
Domestic Violence as News
Groups working to end domestic violence claim significant progress,
including the establishment of research, preventive education, and support
systems and the training of public safety, social service, and health care pro-
viders in the past three decades (Bart & Moran, 1993; Tierney, 1982). As part
of preventive education, many advocacy groups pursue proactive communi-
cation strategies to raise public awareness and to stimulate public dialogue.
To engage mass media in proactive education, advocates work to become
routine news sources; they familiarize themselves with news norms regard-
ing deadlines, story formats, and mainstream news criteria, and they estab-
lish ongoing working relationships with journalists.
This relation building has expanded proactive coverage—news stories
abound during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, for instance. Nonethe-
less, when an incident of domestic violence occurs, reporters do not consis-
tently turn to domestic violence advocates. Instead they revert to traditional
crime beat sources, producing routine crime news lacking substantive,
contextualized insight into deeper underlying issues (Berkeley Media Stud-
ies Group, 2003; Iyengar, 1991; Kaniss, 1997). In crime storiesabout domes-
tic violence, researchers identify these recurring problematic patterns:
News reports suggest that victims, at least partially, are responsible for their
fate (Meyers, 1997).
Inscribed as crime news, domestic violence reports focus on the sensational.
Reporters revert to predetermined framings such as tragic love going awry
(Jones, 1994; Meyers, 1997).
In an exculpatory search for the perpetrator’s motive, domestic violence is
psychologized and individuated (Pagelow, 1981; Soothill & Walby, 1991).
When coverage focuses on the perpetrator’s motives, the victim disappears
(Meyers, 1997).
Coverage obscures social dimensions of domestic violence—ways that society
produces and promotes violence against women (Bart & Moran, 1993; Caputi,
1993).
Applying notions of objectivity mechanically, reporters suggest a false parity
in describing domestic violence (Meyers, 1997).
212 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
All of the above effects are exacerbated if the victims are poor or working
class women and/or women of color (Benedict, 1992; hooks, 1992; Meyers,
1997; Van Dijk, 1991).
These coverage patterns isolate the victim, implying complicity on her or
his part: that she or he was a masochistic partner in a pathological relation-
ship, that she or he provoked her or his batterer, that she or he failed to take
responsibility for leaving, and so on (Pagelow, 1981, p. 88). They also under-
mine efforts to change public policy and consciousness (Loseke, 1989);
atomized victims struggle for protection while the social roots of domestic
violence remain obscured (Meyers, 1997).
Recommendations for Change
Service providers, advocates, and researchers have translated the
above critiques into practical suggestions for three types of reforms in news-
making institutions:
Changes in news practices (Benedict, 1992; Byerly, 1994; Jones, 1994; Meyers,
1997; Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence [RICADV], 2000).
Changes in journalist professional training and in-service education (Berkeley
Media Studies Group, 2003; Byerly, 1994; Jones, 1994).
Development of institutional guidelines for the coverage of domestic violence
(Benedict, 1992; Johnson, 1994; Meyers, 1997).
Though practical and compelling, the recommendations do not address
the formidable barriers posed by market-driven news organizations.
Although change is possible (Meyers, 1992), media critics generally concur
that corporate mass media systems bedevil reform efforts (Gans, 2003;
Herman & Chomsky, 1988; McChesney, 1999) unless grounded in strong
collective efforts—groups of citizens working in concert (Croteau &
Hoynes, 2001; Ryan, 2004). Thus, despite their practicality, the reforms pro-
posed above remain primarily a critique. This study describes an effort to
implement these reforms and to assess their actual effect on coverage of
domestic violence.
Study Design
Background—The Intervention
In keeping with its mission to eliminate domestic violence in Rhode
Island, RICADV involves itself in many arenas of social and political life. Its
work to deepen relationships with journalists represented one aspect of a
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 213
comprehensive, statewide strategic communications plan covering police,
judicial, legislative, health, educational, and grassroots or community are-
nas. RICADV’s desire to build strong relational ties (Diani, 2000) inspired a
coalition-building orientation that permeated its work with survivors, service
providers, court personnel, police, and schools.
We date strategic communications efforts from 1996, at which point
RICADV and MRAP, in collaboration with other domestic violence advo-
cates, survivors, journalists, scholars, and public interest lawyers, began dis-
cussing the disparity between typically positive news coverage of RICADV
events—such as Domestic Violence Awareness Month—and the often prob-
lematic coverage of domestic violence murders by the same media. RICADV
noticed that domestic violence murder news frequently exhibited the pat-
terns described above—lost context, sensationalism, exculpatory searches
for motive, and so on. RICADV hoped to encourage reporters covering
domestic violence murders to stress community responsibility, collective
action, and prevention.
As a point of departure, a research team from MRAP conducted a qualita-
tive content analysis of local print media coverage of domestic violence mur-
ders in the Rhode Island media market between 1996 and 1999. Although the
study corroborated many of the findings cited above, it also identified jour-
nalistic best practices that broke with these patterns. At the same time,
RICADV conducted a focus group with domestic violence survivors to docu-
ment their experiences with news media. Thinking from the survivors’stand-
point, RICADV wanted to better understand how reporters miss survivors’
concerns and experiences. RICADV also conducted intensive interviews
with local journalists (editors and reporters) to explore their understanding of
domestic violence. Thinking from the journalists’ standpoint, RICADV
wanted to better understand the constraints under which journalists make
news decisions. For instance, time-starved, crime beat reporters write most
domestic violence murder stories. In the spirit of relation building, RICADV
asked journalists what they needed to better cover domestic violence and
how advocates could respond to those needs.
An RICADV-MRAP work team then analyzed the findings of the content
analysis and the interview and focus group transcripts. The content analysis
revealed that of the 37 different reporters covering the 12 domestic violence
murders cases occurring between 1996 and 1999, only 3 (8%) covered more
than one case. With journalists rotating through news beats so quickly,
RICADV could not depend on reporters improving over time. It needed to
store information in newsrooms’ institutional memories.
Taking journalists’ advice, RICADV organized its findings as a handbook
to serve not as a freestanding product but as a catalyst for building dialogues
214 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
and sustaining working relationships with journalists. In keeping with that
approach, RICADV drafted the handbook, then asked journalists to review
the draft. A second draft incorporated their input. The handbook passed
through a final review by journalists before printing.
In June 2000, RICADV (2000) published Domestic Violence: A Hand-
book for Journalists and distributed it to its extensive press list. RICADV
also met with journalists from Rhode Island’s largest print news outlet, the
Providence Journal, to present the handbook’s findings and seek feedback.
RICADV then worked to address outstanding issues that reporters identi-
fied. For instance, RICADV now helps time-pressed reporters by quickly
researching criminal histories of alleged perpetrators. Relation building, in
other words, was not confined to the handbook. Rather, the handbook pro-
vided a flexible vehicle for continuing dialogue. RICADV routinely calls
editors and reporters to see whether they need copies or have suggestions for
handbook additions or changes.
Assessing the Intervention
To evaluate the handbook’s effect, RICADV commissioned MRAP to
conduct a quantitative content analysis of news coverage before and after the
handbook was disseminated. MRAP sought to measure whether best prac-
tices highlighted in the handbook had been adopted by journalists. Of partic-
ular interest were four recommendations. The handbook had urged journal-
ists to adhere to the following guidelines:
1. “Use the words, ‘domestic violence’ . . . when you are speaking about vio-
lence between intimates; it . . . sets the context of the crime” (RICADV, 2000,
p. 6-2).
2. Ask the police whether the crime fits the legal definition of domestic violence.
The handbook provided the legal definition and offered suggestions for inter-
viewing police (RICADV, 2000).
3. Avoid quoting bystanders such as neighbors or community residents. Lacking
real information, they “reinforce popular myths about domestic violence as
random unpredictable acts: ‘They seemed to be nice,’said a next-door neigh-
bor.” (RICADV, 2000, p. 6-6).
4. Prioritize interviews with survivors, advocates, police, and other domestic
violence experts who can put individual acts of domestic violence in the con-
text of larger trends and discuss prevention (RICADV, 2000).
MRAP hypothesized that for the handbook intervention to qualify as effec-
tive, coverage should reflect shifts in reporter practices on four dimensions:
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 215
1. Measure increased reporter understanding of what constitutes domestic vio-
lence by tracking the frequency with which reporters incorporated domestic
violence language before and after the intervention.
2. Measure increased use of police to define a crime as domestic violence by
police source patterns before and after the intervention.
3. Measure increased use of domestic violence experts and advocates as sources by
comparing expert oradvocatesource patternsbefore andafter theintervention.
4. Measure increased reporter caution regarding bystanders as news sources by
comparing uses of bystanders as sources before and after the intervention.
Method
Working with RICADV, MRAP designed and conducted a quantitative
content analysis comparing news coverage of domestic violence murders
before and after the intervention. We present the results of that content analy-
sis below. Here we describe our evaluation design, method, and procedures.
Sample Selection
The study sample includes all local print news stories regarding domestic
violence murders that occurred in the 4 years prior to the intervention (1996-
1999, hereafter Phase 1) and in the 2 years following the intervention (2000-
2002, hereafter Phase 2). Using a news clipping service, we surveyed all
newspapers, weekly or daily, in the Providence, Rhode Island media market,
the 43rd largest of the nation’s more than 200 media markets.
To assure sample completeness, we compared the Phase 1 sample pro-
vided by the clipping service to a sample covering the same period drawn
using LexisNexis, supplemented by a search of the University of Rhode
Island’s archives of small weekly community papers. The additional search
using LexisNexis and universityarchives netted only one additional article(1
of 103 articles). In Phase 2, we also cross-checked the news clip sample
against LexisNexis. The sample included 103 articles for Phase 1 and 172
articles for Phase 2.
We focused on murders rather than incidents of domestic violence more
generally for several reasons. Use of murders ensured that the issue met news
criteria. Murders could be identified irrefutably as domestic violence (as
contrasted to domestic violence incidents that are contested by either party).
Finally, murder stories represented a clear example of unplanned crisis cov-
erage, as contrasted with coverage of preplanned events that media tended to
cover extensively.
216 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
Our focus on local media reflects previous findings that local news pro-
vides the most common journalistic arena for domestic violence crimes
because these crimes are usually deemed of limited, mostly local interest
(Loseke, 1989; Meyers, 1997). National media, covering only the most egre-
gious or unusual domestic violence murder cases, would be a less reliable
arena in which to evaluate coverage.
Our focus on print media grows from Kaniss’ (1997) finding that local
print news outlets serve as kingmakers directly affecting politicians, police,
and other institutions. Broadcast news, Kaniss finds, generally trails print
coverage, the longer print accounts serving as raw material for broadcast
journalism’s shorter headline versions of events.
The resulting sample includes all 1996 to 2002 print news coverage of
Rhode Island murder cases meeting the state’s statutory definition of domes-
tic violence. A total of 12 domestic violence murder cases occurred in Phase
1 before the intervention, and another 10 cases occurred in Phase 2 after the
intervention.4
Coder Training
During the course of the study, two teams of three coders each were
trained to identify both source patterns and use of domestic violence lan-
guage. Posttraining, intercoder reliability averaged .92.
Content Variables
This article concentrates on two key variables—journalists’ choices of
language to describe domestic violence murders and source patterns. To ana-
lyze journalists’ choices of language describing domestic violence murders,
we first reviewed RICADV press releases for each murder. From these press
releases, we created a glossary of common phrases used by advocates vis-à-
vis domestic violence murders.5Each news article was then coded for report-
ers’ incorporations of language that corresponded to the advocates’domestic
violence message. Coders documented the term and where and how often it
occurred. Each story was coded three times, each time by an independent
coder. A final coding reviewed all cases for consistency, data entry errors,
and so on. Intercoder reliability exceeded .90.
Positing that source selection shapes story line (Soley, 1992), we also
studied how source patterns shifted between Phase 1 and Phase 2. We coded
articles for all quoted sources. For each article,the coder recorded basic iden-
tification information (outlet, reporter, date, headline) and listed each quote
and its location. The coder then identified each source according to the
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 217
source’s relationship to the crime (e.g., police, victim, victim’s family,
friend, coworker; perpetrator; perpetrator’s family, friend, coworker; com-
munity resident, advocate, etc.).6The police category includes court and
judicial professionals. The advocate category includes domestic violence
survivors, advocates, and others involved in domestic violence research and/
or services via shelters and so on.
From the entire data set (103 articles in Phase 1; 172 articles in Phase 2),
we drew two subsets of articles that quoted identifiable sources (74 articles in
Phase 1; 137 articles in Phase 2) for the purposes of analysis. One subset
focused on lead quotes, the other on key quotes.7Focusing on these key vari-
ables—domestic violence language and source patterns—we present below
a comparison of Rhode Island print news coverage of domestic violence
murders before the handbook intervention (Phase 1) and after (Phase 2).
Findings
Between Phase 1 and Phase 2, news coverage of domestic violence mur-
ders changed significantly in use of domestic violence language and in sour-
cing patterns.
Changes in Domestic Violence Language
Between Phases 1 and 2
In Phase 1 (preintervention), half of the articles (51.5%) called the murder
of an intimate partner “domestic violence.” If the handbook intervention
improved communication with journalists, more postintervention news arti-
cles should have labeled these murders explicitly as domestic violence. In
fact, seven eighths of all Phase 2 (postintervention) articles (87.2%) labeled
the murders domestic violence.
An independent samples ttest determined a significant change in the
mean number of domestic violence citations per article between Phases 1 and
2. The mean for domestic violence citation in Phase 1 was 3.44. In Phase 2,
the mean shifted to 7.93, an increase of 4.49 domestic violence citations per
article from Phase 1 to Phase 2 (t= 4.99, p< .001).
Changes in Sourcing Patterns
To analyze changes in sourcing patterns, we created a subset of articles in
which one or more identifiable sources were quoted, then studied shifts in
lead source and shifts in key sources.
218 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
Lead Sources
In Phase 1, four types of sources—police, victim’s relations (family,
friend, coworker), community residents, and advocates—composed 89% of
all lead sources. These four sources split the lead category relatively evenly,
clustering within 7 percentage points. Police were the top lead source,
appearing first in more than one fourth (25.7%) of all print news coverage.
Slightly fewer than one fourth (24.3%) of Phase 1 articles led with a quote
from the victim’s family, neighbors, or coworkers. Domestic violence advo-
cates were the third most common lead source (20%), with sources repre-
senting the community at large following closely at 19%.
In Phase 2, advocates doubled their presence to become reporters’ most
common lead source (42%, χ236, p< .001). Reporters also increased the fre-
quency with which they used police as the lead source (χ25.79, p= .016);
police sources represented more than one third (35%) of leads in Phase 2. In
contrast, reporters dramatically decreased their use of the victim’s family,
friends, neighbors, and coworkers as lead sources (χ214.43, p< .001). In
Phase 2, these sources composed only 11% of lead sources. Similarly, report-
ers’ use of community residents dropped markedly from 19% to 4% (χ219.6,
p< .001).
Although in Phase 1 the lead source frequency of advocates and commu-
nity residents differed by a single percentage point (20% advocates vs. 19%
community), in Phase 2 the incidence of advocate lead source citations was
10 times that of community residents (42% vs. 4%, respectively). Thus, the
relative distance between highest and lowest source grew dramatically (see
Table 1 and Figure 1).
Key Source Patterns
Key sources include all identifiable sources other than the lead source
quoted in an article’s first three paragraphs or last paragraph and/or sources
quoted for at least one paragraph. In Phase 1, as with lead sources, four
groups—victim’s family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, police, commu-
nity residents, and advocates—accounted for 89% of cited key sources, clus-
tered within 9 percentage points (19%-28%). Although police had been the
most common lead source, most frequently cited as key sources were the vic-
tim’s family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers (28%). Community residents
(22%) and police (21%) ranked second and third, respectively, whereas
advocate sources trailed by 2 percentage points (19%).
In Phase 2, as with the lead sources, reporters expanded citation of police
and advocate sources and lowered citation of community sources and
sources representing the victim’s family, friends, and so on. Police rose from
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 219
third place to first place (from 21% in Phase 1 to 34% in Phase 2; χ244.64, p<
.001), whereas advocates jumped from last to second place (19% in Phase 1
220 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
Table 1
Lead Source Patterns
Phase 1 Phase 2 Change
Police 25.7 34.8 +9.1
Advocate 21.7 43.2 +21.5
VFNC 23.0 9.1 –13.9
Community 18.9 3.8 –15.1
Perpetrator 6.8 3.8 –3.0a
PFNC 4.1 3.0 –1.1a
PV 0.0 1.5 +1.5
Victim 0.0 0.8 +0.8
Legislator 0.0 0.0 0.0
n74 132
Note: nis the number of articles with quotes. VFNCis victim’s family,neighbors, and coworkers.
PFNC is perpetrator’sfamily, neighbors, coworkers.PV is perpetrator-victim, a batterer who was
killed in the course of battering. A graphical representation of trends in lead source citation can be
found in Figure 1.
a. Insignificant (all other phase changes were significant at p < .05.
P
P
A
A
V
V
C
C
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
40
45
50
PHASE 1 PHASE 2
Phase
Frequency of Lead Source Citation
Figure 1
Trends in Lead Source Citation
Note: P is police. A is advocates. V is victim’s family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. C is com-
munity resident or bystander.
to 32% in Phase 2; χ260.98, p< .001). In other words, reporters significantly
increased their use of both advocates and police as key sources.
Paralleling lead sourcing patterns, reporters in Phase 2 decreased citation
of the victim’s family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers as key sources
(28% in Phase 1 to 20% in Phase 2, χ213.66, p< .001), a drop of 8%. Report-
ers’ use of community residents as key sources dropped even more markedly
from 22% to 6% (χ275.01, p< .001).
Again, the ratio of reporters’ use of advocate sources to community
sources shifted most dramatically. Although in Phase 1 reporters slightly
preferred community sources—the typical bystander—to domestic violence
advocates (22% vs. 19%, respectively), in Phase 2 the incidence of advocate
key source citations was 6 times that of community residents or bystanders
(see Table 2 and Figure 2).
Changes in the Culture
Because advocates routinely use domestic violence language, we expect-
ed that an increase in the use of domestic violence advocates as lead or key
sources might result in a concomitant increase in domestic violence lan-
guage. This would tell us that domestic violence advocates had become more
visible in public discourse but would not mean that other public voices had
embraced domestic violence language. To test whether reporters and/or
other sources—police, community, victim’s family—increased their use of
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 221
Table 2
Key Sourcing Patterns
Phase 1 Phase 2 Change
Police 21.3 33.8 +12.4
Advocate 18.5 32.3 +13.8
VFNC 27.6 20.1 –7.5
Community 21.6 5.4 –16.3
Perpetrator 2.8 1.0 –1.8
PFNC 6.0 4.8 –1.2a
PV 0.0 0.6 +0.6
Victim 0.3 0.4 0.0a
Legislator 0.6 0.4 –0.2a
Citations (n) 319 483
Note: nis the number of key sources cited. VFNC is victim’s family, neighbors, coworkers.
PFNC is perpetrator’sfamily, neighbors, coworkers.PV is perpetrator-victim, a batterer who was
killed in the course of battering. A graphical representation of trends in key sources citation can
be found in Figure 2.
a. Insignificant (all other phase changes were significant at p< .05).
domestic violence language in Phase 2, we created a dummy variable that
removed all articles citing advocates as lead or key sources. Using the result-
ing nonadvocate subsample of articles, we used an independent samples ttest
to examine any possible change in the means for domestic violence citations
between Phases 1 and 2 for all cases that had no advocate interference.
For the nonadvocate subsample, the Phase 1 mean for domestic violence
citations was .96 domestic violence references per article—slightly less than
1 reference per article. The Phase 2 mean shifted to 4.17 references per arti-
cle, an increase of 3.19 in domestic violence citations between phases (t=
6.7, p< .001). In other words, even when advocates were not cited as lead or
secondary sources, reporters and nonadvocate sources such as police qua-
drupled their use of domestic violence language.
In summary, our findings suggest that in Phase 2, reporters adopted the
newsgathering practices suggested by the RICADV in several critical ways.
First, articles identifying the murder of intimate partners as domestic vio-
lence rose. Second, source patterns shifted in three ways proposed by the
handbook. Sources representing domestic violence advocates gained visibil-
ity in both relative and absolute terms. As the handbook urged, reporters also
expanded their use of police sources. Also as the handbook suggested,
reporters continued to use neighbors, family, friends, and coworkers as
sources judiciously, but sharply limited their use of casual bystanders. As a
result, these sources dropped in frequency. Notably, when domestic violence
222 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
P
P
A
A
V
V
C
C
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
40
PHASE 1 PHASE 2
Phase
Percentage of Key Source Citation
Figure 2
Trends in Key Source Citation
Note: P is police; A is advocates; V is victim’s family, friends, neighbors, coworkers; C is com-
munity resident or bystander.
advocates were extracted from the sample, reporters and nonadvocate
sources quadrupled their use of domestic violence language.
Discussion
Can simply publishing a handbook explain these strong findings? We
think not. Several unique characteristics of this intervention may explain the
marked changes documented herein. Most fundamentally, RICADV used
the handbook as a catalyst, a tool for facilitating ongoing dialogue with
reporters, editors, and their news outlets. Consistent with this participa-
tory approach, RICADV interviewed reporters about their understanding of
domestic violence. The handbook was then intentionally structured to respond
to reporters’ questions. RICADV was surprised, for instance, to discover that
most reporters did not know when a crime constituted domestic violence;
thus the Rhode Island statute was included in the handbook. Working report-
ers influenced the handbook’s tone and content; they helped RICADV to
address the actual constraints under which reporters operate and to identify
existing best practices. The preliminary qualitative study provided actual, as
contrasted with hypothetical, examples of problematic and best practices.
Additional invaluable advice emerged in interviews with survivors.
Following the handbook’s publication, RICADV continued to develop its
communications systems to respond to journalists’ needs. From its dialogues
with police and reporters, for instance, RICADV realized that it should call
police and reporters proactively after a domestic violence murder. RICADV
worked to ensure that reporters could reach the organization quickly and eas-
ily and that the organization could provide both reliable information about
the murder and well-prepared spokespersons from its member agencies and
its survivor group, Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships. Each incre-
mental change helped reporters to follow the handbook’s counsel. Reporters
also benefited from RICADV’s parallel work with police to increase their use
of domestic violence language.
In short, RICADV did not simply expect reporters to change, it changed
its own practices to respond to reporter needs. RICADV’s criticism extended
to its own practice, and it accompanied its criticism of reporters with support.
The resulting exchanges were collaborative in tone. When defensiveness on
the part of media institutions rose, RICADV intentionally did not respond in
kind.
Critics of domestic violence coverage often urge journalism to “clean up
its act” (Jones, 1994, p. 228) or tell advocates to seek journalists who have
educated themselves (Meyers, 1997, p. 108). In placing responsibility for
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 223
change on the shoulders of journalists working within a media system unpar-
alleled in its capacity to absorb, deflect, and diffuse challenges, however,
domestic violence advocates may underestimate the changes that they
themselves might initiate.
The handbook was one coalition-building tactic in a comprehensive,
statewide, coalition-building communications strategy. The communica-
tions strategy, moreover, was an integral part of a comprehensive organizing
strategy grounded in models of organizing influenced by the U.S. civil rights
and women’s movements. This represents a culturally American version of
participatory approaches to organizing common in the global south.
Centralized, profit-driven mass media systems in the United States pres-
ent formidable challenges to experimenters in participatory communication.
Within each media market, individual media outlets can be acutely sensitive
to pressure for ratings or profit.8Nonetheless, these outlets offer access to
broad publics, and this potential access compels collective actors to tackle
the mass media arena. Although complicated and laborious, RICADV’s
experience suggests that advocacy groups can gain access to mass media to
promote change-oriented messages if they learn to function within news
norms as a reliable source.
Market-driven media outlets are not opposed to covering stories with
social significance; they simply want to make money doing so. Within each
of the nation’s 200 media markets, media outlets contend to attract local
viewers, a competition that opens opportunities for advocates. Media outlets
respond to story sponsors who help them attract and expand viewers, readers,
or market share. In sum, although they are profit driven, mass media outlets
do respond to story sponsors who understand mainstream criteria for news-
worthiness and who meet news norms regarding production speed and
quality.
To the extent that RICADV consistently helped reporters produce timely
news that captured public interest, and to the extent that RICADV in its orga-
nizing and legislative work was making news, media outlets came to rely on
the organization as a routine, reliable source. We interpret RICADV’s suc-
cess as evidence in support of a dialogic model of media-movement inter-action
(Barker-Plummer, 1996). Stressing context, timing, reflexivity, and relations
between movements and reporters, communications scholar Bernadette
Barker-Plummer (1996) suggests that:
a dialogic approach looks for two-way influences from any interaction, and it
assumes the participants in any interaction can learn about and use the
resources of the other—especially if those resources are discursive knowledge
resources ....Seeing the media-movement relationship as two-way does not
224 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
preclude it from being an imbalanced interaction, nor deny that one organiza-
tion holds more power than the other. A dialogic model comes with no guaran-
tees ....Buttosaythat a relationship is difficult, complex, subtle and unbal-
anced is not to say that its outcomes are inevitable. (p. 33)
Thus, although market forces constrain opportunities, advocates can
establish mutually beneficial relations with reporters by launching sustained
communications campaigns that can adapt to existing news norms and crite-
ria. However, this requires resources and sustainable infrastructure, a com-
munications capacity integrated into organizational capacity.
This last point, the importance of investment in communications capacity
building, could be a potentially taken-for-granted finding of this study. This
experiment’s success was predicated on the existence of RICADV as a col-
lective actor capable of institutionalizing lessons and expanding resources as
it experiments and grows. To influence a profit-driven media market,
RICADV developed communications skills and infrastructure and institu-
tionalized its ties to news outlets. Only collective actors and in fact multiple
collective actors, synchronizing their resources, can accrue sufficient experi-
ence, develop strategy, and consolidate skills and contacts to build an infra-
structure sufficient to sustain a successful foray into the market-driven media
arena. Thus, in the U.S. context, attempts to change public awareness via
mass media require long-term, not short-term, interventions with ongoing
collective actors. Ad hoc coalitions have a role but cannot create the needed
infrastructure or sustain relation building.
Limitations of Study and Future Directions
Several unique features of this experiment areworthy of note. Staff stabil-
ity ensured consistency of approach throughout the experiment. RICADV,
however, has systematized many of its own best practices so that consistency
of approach can be maintained even if staff turnover occurs. Additional lon-
gitudinal studies will be needed to assess whether the documented changes
are sustained over time.
Also worth noting is that this statewide intervention occurred in a small
state encompassing the 44th largest media market in the nation. Although
this does not invalidate the results, it suggests that replicating them in larger
states and media markets will require more time and resources. Finally,
although this experiment supports the potential of RICADV’s underlying
participatory communications model, attempts to translate participatory
communication models developed in the global south to the global north
must attend to differences between the two hemispheres’ media systems,
Ryan et al. / Changing Coverage of Domestic Violence Murders 225
political structures, and social movement traditions, grounding work in our
own social realities.
Conclusion
Despite extensive efforts by domestic violence programs, many Ameri-
cans still consider domestic violence a private matter, and yearly domestic
violence incidents still number in the millions. It is a matter of urgency that
successful interventions to change public discourse vis-à-vis domestic vio-
lence, and consequently to influence public opinion, be shared and repli-
cated. Given that each state has a domestic violence coalition akin to
RICADV, potential exists to replicate this experiment in other localities.
Treated as an isolated educational intervention, the handbook provides an
insufficient explanation for the dramatic changes documented by this content
analysis. Understanding the handbook, however, as an intervention embed-
ded within a comprehensive participatory approach helps explain its effect.
Placing the capacity for change in the hands of advocates, including survi-
vors, this experiment resonates with participatory communications models
emerging in the global south while drawing on models of organization cre-
ated by the civil rights movement and other social movements of the late 20th
century. Such approaches hold promise for initiatives to end domestic
violence.
Notes
1. The mission of the statewide Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, founded
in 1979, is to eliminate domestic violence in Rhode Island.
2. Domestic violence murder is defined in accordance with RI’s 1988 Domestic Violence
Prevention Act.
3. The term global south refers to nations, often in the southern hemisphere,
that are economically dependent on and, from a model of industrialcapitalism, seen as less developed
than those countries in the North. The word has been used to avoid negative connotations that terms
such as developing countries or third world countries may have.” (Riano, 1994, p. 286)
4. One case straddled the two phases, the murder occurring in Phase 1 and the trial occurring
in Phase 2.
5. Coded phrases included domestic violence, domestic abuse, domestic violence murder,
battering, restraining order, domestic violence unit, and so on. We did not include the words, vio-
lence,abuse,ormurder if they appeared in isolation from the word domestic. Mention of domes-
tic violence advocacy organizations and shelters was also noted.
6. The community resident category in this study might more appropriately be called
bystander. This category represented journalists’ classic man-in-the-street interviews with
passersby to gage public reaction to a murder.
226 Journal of Interpersonal Violence
7. The first source cited was coded as lead. Sources quoted in the first three or last paragraphs
or quoted for at least one paragraph were labeled key. Any remaining sources, often not identi-
fied, were coded secondary.
8. Werecognize that a transnational economy imposes intense market pressures on the global
south, but in many cases oppositional social and political communications networks compete
robustly with mass media outlets. Within the United States, mainstream media dominate media
markets, leaving oppositional communications networks weakened.
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