Mass Media & Domestic Violence

Updated April 17, 2017

Domestic violence is overwhelmingly a social problem. Feminists such as Abbott and Wallace have long argued that the issue is a public rather than a private matter. Mass media has a dual effect on the problem of domestic violence, portraying domestic violence as isolated incidents, while on the other hand, making it a matter of public and policy debates.


Few mass media reports of domestic violence existed before the 1990s. Historically, violence in the home was a private matter. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was given legal backing. The saying "a rule of thumb" comes from one legal judgment that a man could legally beat his wife with a stick, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. Patriarchal society along with religious notions that women were less spiritual than men not only made domestic violence a private matter, it gave it legal sanction. According to Abbott and Wallace, feminists have campaigned against patriarchal attitudes and questioned media portrayals of women either as mother or whore and say these incite violence against their sex.


Since the early 1990s, feminist campaigns along with mass media reports have turned domestic violence from a purely private matter to a public one. Mass media reports of partner violence highlight the need for a change in attitudes and perhaps a change in the law as most domestic violence convictions rely solely on victims' testimonies. According to Ferrand Bullock and Cubert, the problem is that the media reports domestic violence as isolated incidents, when most survivors have endured months if not years of repeated acts of violence.


The benefits of mass media reports of domestic violence have made it a matter of public debate, despite the problems with reporting. More importantly, according to Morrison and Biehl in the preface to their book, women's groups campaigned on domestic violence for years to make it a serious policy concern. Mass media reporting has arguably had some effect on how the police deal with incidences of domestic violence. In the U.K., many police forces have a dedicated domestic violence unit that helps women to find a safe place away from their violent partners.


While there are some positive effects from mass media portrayals of domestic violence, according to a study television and inter partner violence undertaken in 2009 some news reports had the effect of promoting copy cat violence and killings. The study concluded that reporters were in need of some kind of guide on how inter-partner violence and murder was reported so as to avoid the potential negative effects that reporting can have on the public. The authors argued that:"there is an evident need to develop a journalistic style guide in order to determine what type of information is recommended due to the potential positive or negative effects."


Abbott and Wallace have argued that, over centuries, women have been portrayed in the arts as either virgins or whores. Television advertisements continue these portrayals, from women in the home promoting detergents to suggestive pictures of girls in the advertising of cars. A 2009 study found that the media can have both negative and positive effects on the behaviour of people watching or reading, showing a direct relationship between the mass media and certain types of domestic violence.

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About the Author

Sue Jeffels is a freelance writer with an academic background. She has published research reports, some alone and some co-authored, a short story, Virtual Blast, in Wild Thyme Writers' Anthology, and numerous articles and product reviews online. She has a B.A. in English and religious studies, and a Ph.D. in feminism and theology.