Although I am glad that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I've been an emergency room doctor for 17 years -- for me, every day is domestic violence awareness day.
As a first-year medical student, I saw a young woman who escaped through an open window in a locked room after her abusive boyfriend had left the apartment and gone to work after beating her. Both of her eyes were swollen shut and her voice was hoarse from being choked. Although this was not the first time he had attacked her, as I examined her she was ashamed to tell me what had happened. After that encounter I realized I had not only an opportunity but an obligation to tell survivors this shouldn't happen to them, help them develop a safety plan and connect them with community resources. Since that day 17 years ago, I have treated hundreds of abused women. But all too often abuse, rather than being treated as the public health crisis it is, is presented in the media through isolated incidents, the more grotesque the better.
David Viens, a Los Angeles chef, was convicted last month of killing his wife and then boiling her body for four days. Instead of seizing this opportunity to increase awareness of the harms of domestic violence and services available to victims, many news reports focused on the horrific details of her death. Violent acts like these are not out of nowhere -- there is a pattern of violence that leads up to them. More disturbingly, many of the news stories focused on Dawn Viens use of alcohol and cocaine rather than situating the violence in the context of domestic abuse.
Unfortunately this media portrayal is not uncommon. A University of Washington research study found that 17 percent of newspaper stories on partner violence concentrated on themes which blamed the victim, such as noting the victim used drugs or alcohol. Another review of newspaper articles revealed that perpetrators were just as likely to be portrayed negatively as they were to be described as gentle, hard-working, or a doting parent. Why is there any description of their personality traits? Reporters don't ask the same personal questions around thieves or rapists.
Magazine coverage of domestic violence isn't much better. The number of domestic violence articles published peaked in the 1990's and then declined by 50 percent in the last decade. Entertainment and social magazines cover this issue the most often focusing on a single celebrity incident such as Rihanna and Chris Brown. The effects of this narrow, inaccurate focus are real -- and they are negative. Even more alarming is what I uncovered after conducting research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health. After surveying over 3,000 abused men (yes, there are abused men) and women, I found many don't realize they are in an abusive relationship. The news reports only on the most extreme cases, so many women do not identify these stories with what they are experiencing. In addition, many grew up witnessing violence and that's all they know.
Since 25 percent of women have experienced physical or emotional abuse by a partner at some point, I am certain that someone in your life -- a neighbor, a parent at your child's school, or your family- -- has experienced domestic violence.
Domestic violence victims are often silent; they are ashamed to tell family or friends about the abuse. Further, it is not easy for women to leave their home and potentially give up economic stability. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that it may take up to seven attempts before a woman successfully leaves an abusive relationship. And, if a woman does leave the relationship this is exactly when she is in the most danger for escalated violence from her partner.
What could the media do that might truly reduce domestic violence? For one thing they could focus on legislative efforts such as the 18-year-old Violence Against Women Act, legislation (sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden, among others) that provides funding for rape crisis centers, domestic violence hotlines and legal aid for survivors. Unfortunately this reauthorization is currently being blocked in Congress by bipartisan bickering over extending coverage for undocumented immigrants, Native Americans and gay/lesbian couples. The news coverage of this absurd stalemate situation has been virtually non-existent.
By reporting on stories as though they occur in isolation, the media also misses the opportunity to educate their audience on prevention strategies for violence such as school-based programs and alternative conflict-resolution skills. Let's turn the focus away from the specific details of a single incident towards a discussion on this national trend of gendered violence.
Changing our culture to one that does not tolerate domestic violence is a long and many-pronged process. We can start by passing the Violence Against Women Act and putting acts such as the one Viens perpetrated in the context of abuse rather than lingering on the prurient details of a gruesome murder. Media are in a unique position to educate the public about the merits of treating domestic violence as a public health problem. Lives depend on it.
Debra Houry M.D. is Director, Center for Injury Control and Associate Professor, Emory University School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project