In April of this year, 53-year-old Cedric Anderson walked into a Southern California elementary school classroom full of kids and shot and killed his teacher-wife, Karen Elaine Smith, in front of her young students, before turning the gun on himself.
The bullets meant for him and his wife also struck and killed an 8-year-old boy nearby, Jonathan Martinez. A 9-year-old student was also shot, but survived.
Understandably, the media was quick to jump on the story. CNN’s headline read, “Student One of 3 Dead in San Bernardino School Shooting.” Other news sources—from The New York Times to Fox News, ABC to Huffington Post—echoed the same sentiment, reporting that a school shooting had just tragically taken the life a child and a teacher.
There was just one problem—it wasn’t a school shooting. Two words critical to classifying the horrendous crime were noticeably absent from the headlines: domestic violence.
Is News Becoming More Storytelling than Facts?
“It’s like saying Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was a ‘theater shooting.’ It’s a lack of training,” says Michele Weldon, emerita professor in journalism at Northwestern University, author and journalist with close to 40 years of experience writing for outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Slate. She’s also a survivor of domestic violence and shared her story in her 1999 book, I Closed My Eyes, and a follow-up in her most recent, Escape Points: A Memoir, where she recounts the two-plus decades that followed her escape from a nine-year marriage to an abusive husband.
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“Sure, school shootings get more sympathy, but I think it’s more so that reporters didn’t understand how to frame it,” she says. It took 24 hours for headlines to reflect Anderson’s history of domestic violence, to make mention of the fact that two women in his past, other than his current wife, had taken out orders of protection on him, or that he and Smith, newlyweds, were estranged. It’s plausible that it took a while to uncover the details, but any seasoned reporter should have made an instant connection between a husband murdering his wife and the possibility of domestic violence.
Weldon agrees. She also authored the book Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page in which she talks about news as a commodity, how feature stories often trump hard news in terms of coverage. Lately, the news is hardly an account of history, she ascertains, rather more so a dramatic retelling of gossip, like water cooler fodder, except true.
Far More People Killed By Partners Than in School Shootings
In a three-year period between 2013-2016, Everytown for Gun Safety found 160 incidents where a gun was discharged inside a school. These shootings—intentional and not—resulted in 59 deaths. Conversely, in 2014 alone the Violence Policy Center found that 1,613 women were killed by men and of those victims, 63 percent were wives or intimate partners of their killers.
The data suggests that being murdered by one’s partner is a much more likely probability than being the victim of a targeted “school shooting.” Are those in the media missing the connection?
Yes, says Weldon, who also serves as editorial director for Take The Lead, an organization with the mission of gender parity in leadership. “Why so many individual journalists misunderstand the accurate framing of domestic violence is because they haven’t been taught any better,” she says. “There’s suspicion of women who claim [domestic violence], and it’s the same with sexual assault and sexual violence. There’s this assumption that false accusations are the default position.”
She doesn’t think this is limited to domestic violence claims, either: “I think that it’s true with women’s voices in general. ‘Oh, she’s not telling the truth,’ is the first thought.”
Largely male-dominated newsrooms may be helping to maintain that myth. Two-thirds of newsroom employees are male, according to the 2016 findings of American Society of News Editors’ annual census, while 63 percent of the supervisors in these newsrooms are also male.
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“With that framework, it just perpetuates these myths. I know people who are working hard to dispel them, but it’s easier to just go along with them,” Weldon says.
The solution starts with increased awareness about domestic violence in general and the fact that survivors are telling the truth. Weldon remembers how it was some 50 years ago, growing up in the 1960s, when one the parents of a childhood friend of hers got divorced. “My father said the husband had hit the wife, but no one could talk about it. It was a big secret.”
Hopefully, times are changing. Despite the above example, Weldon says she personally sees more survivors than ever before telling their stories, helping to destigmatize the shame of domestic violence. “And, the effort of men as allies to step in is also really comforting. Because it can’t just be women all the time saying this has to stop.”
Change also has to come to those who report the news, male and female alike.
“The more aware and sensitive journalists can be, especially with celebrity cases, the more survivors will be believed,” says Weldon, citing the stories of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and actress Amber Heard accusing their partners of abuse as examples. “I’m a little tired of people saying, ‘Oh, she’s so pretty, how can it happen to her?’ People are more reluctant to believe these survivors because [many think] domestic violence only happens to women of lower income and education levels.”
Read about how domestic violence is portrayed on TV and in the movies in “Mixed (Message) Media.”
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