Media Representations of Domestic Violence
Summary and Keywords
Though it is generally given less attention than sexual assault, domestic violence is quite often depicted in corporate media products, including news broadcasts, television shows, and films. Mediated depictions of domestic violence share many of the same problems as those of sexual assault. In particular, the media tends to imply that women are somehow culpable when they are being beaten, even murdered, by their partners. News on domestic violence is often reported in a routine manner that focuses on minutiae instead of context, informing audiences minimally about the nature, extent, and causes of domestic violence. Though it is encouraging that over the past several decades the media has begun to acknowledge that domestic violence is a serious problem, this recognition is challenged by antifeminist claims-making in the media. Such challenges generally cite contested social science research as proof that feminist research on domestic violence is biased and inaccurate. Furthermore, media representations of domestic violence often supply racializing and class-biased discourses about abusers and their victims that frame domestic violence as largely the product of marginalized classes, rather a problem that affects the various strata of society. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, media coverage of the violence against women abroad, particularly in Islamic nations, has provided more racializing discourse, which juxtaposes “progressive” Western cultures with “backward” Eastern ones. On the domestic front, news focusing on indigenous communities replicates some of the racism inherent in the orientalist gaze applied to domestic violence abroad. Generally, the media do a poor job of cultivating a sophisticated understanding of domestic violence among the public. Thus, many researchers argue such media representations constitute a hegemonic patriarchal ideology, which obfuscates the issue of domestic violence, as well as the underlying social relations that create the phenomenon.
Problematic Media Coverage of Domestic Violence
Second-wave feminists can rightly claim credit for one undisputed victory: they named and politicized violence against women, attracting media attention to this social problem, generating grass-roots resources for victims, and ultimately spurring official responses (Schechter, 1982). Over the past four decades, the media has come to recognize sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence as serious social issues (Chermak, 1995; Lowney & Best, 1995). In the beginning of the 21st century, though sexual assault is most prominently featured in the news media, domestic violence also occupies a significant place, though perhaps less so than in the 1980s and 90s, following feminism’s second wave (DeKeseredy, 1999). That said, media representations of domestic violence continue to be problematic in that they frequently reinforce hegemonic and patriarchal notions concerning violence as well as gender, race, and class relations. Moreover, they demonstrate the media’s ambivalent treatment of feminist perspectives.
As a consequence, media depictions of domestic violence provide the public with a partial and often misleading representation of this issue. News stories often blame victims, fail to convey its prevalence or explore its causes, or generally provide decontextualized accounts of domestic violence (Berns, 2004; Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Gillespie, Richards, Givens, & Smith, 2013; Kozol, 1995; Meyers, 1994; Taylor, 2009; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Some media coverage though, is encouragingly critical and contextualized, though this is exceptional (Berns, 2004; Gillespie et al., 2013).
Even the limited and flawed attention the media gives to the issue of violence against women is continuously challenged by groups looking to roll back feminist gains, and at times news outlets provide a platform for these perspectives (Chesney-Lind, 2006; DeKeseredy, 1999; Dragiewicz, 2011). While this antifeminist backlash was particularly furious in the 1980s and 1990s as a response to feminist gains made in the 1970s, there is reason to believe such ideas are being revived as the United States has recently begun an enhanced conversation about sexual assault and other forms of gender violence on the college campuses.
Studies using an intersectional perspective have shown that media representations are more sympathetic to privileged victims and offenders, while they denigrate marginalized ones (Chancer, 1994; Kozol, 1995; McDonald, 1999; Meyers, 1994, 2004; Potter, 2008). More specifically, news on domestic violence exhibits racialized and class-based patterns, idealizing the white and wealthy, while denigrating the poor and nonwhite. Other racialized themes arise in this coverage as well. Specifically, studies with a global outlook have shown how the news media engage in orientalist reporting that creates a dichotomy that juxtaposes “progressive” Western societies, and “backward” Eastern ones (Eisenstein, 2010; Ferguson, 2005; Said, 1979). Such rhetoric stepped up, particularly following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and constitutes an important focus for future research on this topic. As well, scholarship in such contexts as Canada, Hawaii, and Australia has illuminated how the news media coverage of violence against indigenous women conceals and perpetuates the inequalities caused by colonialism.
Examining the extant research on domestic violence in the media, including by Chagnon (2016), illustrates the contradictory way the media treat this issue and shows that media recognize that domestic violence is a problem, but in a manner that obfuscates the issue, and only selectively integrates feminist knowledge.
The Pervasiveness of Domestic Violence
Violence against women is pervasive worldwide, and physical and sexual abuse of female partners—what is often called domestic violence—is perhaps the most common form of violence against women (Devries et al., 2013; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Studies have found that between one-quarter and one-third of women are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives (Black et al., 2011; Garcia et al., 2013; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). For women, being killed by a partner—femicide—is the most common form of homicide (Garcia et al., 2013; Rennison & Welchans, 2000). Domestic violence affects women across various social boundaries (e.g., class, race, sexual orientation), though there is evidence that it is pronounced in some groups, specifically among racially and economically marginalized women (Rennison & Welchans, 2000; Weston, Temple, & Marshall, 2005). For instance, one study found that black women in the United States were more likely to suffer lethal partner violence than others (Azziz-Baumgartner, McKeown, Melvin, Dang, & Reed, 2011). Furthermore, a global study done by researchers for the World Health Organization found substantial variation across both nations and regions (Devries et al., 2013). The extent of domestic violence is one reason that various international nongovernmental organizations, as well as the United Nations, have declared violence against women a global health crisis (Garcia et al., 2013). Domestic violence is unquestionably a dire issue, yet it is not as visible in the media as one might expect.
Media Coverage of the Issue
While the media surely pay attention to criminal victimization of women, coverage is somewhat slanted and selective. Specifically, the news media tend to focus on sexual assaults, especially those committed by strangers, far more readily than they do on domestic violence. As early as the mid-1990s researchers found that the frequency with which news outlets were reporting on domestic violence was decreasing (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 1993). More recently, in a dissertation on media coverage from 1992 through 2012, Chagnon (2016) found that the New York Times featured stories about rape and sexual assault 2.5 times more often than stories on domestic violence. Furthermore, among reports on sex crimes, those committed by intimate partners or family members (which are a form of domestic violence) were almost never featured, while rapes committed by strangers made up the vast majority of cases featured. Figure 1 illustrates the disparity in the types of crimes featured.1
Several reasons for these disparities come to mind. Reporters may believe that their readers or audiences are more interested in rape than simple domestic assault, because they are likely to perceive the former to be a more serious crime (despite the possibility of lethal outcomes in some cases of domestic violence). Moreover, when a suspect has not yet been apprehended, serial sexual assaults may constitute an ongoing threat to other members of the public. It should also be noted, though, how stranger sex assaults and domestic violence, respectively, fit with the crime narratives most often disseminated by the mainstream mass media. The media tend to push a narrative focusing on violent, often drug-related, street crimes perpetrated by strangers, and much less often examine violence occurring between acquaintances and intimates (Greer & Reiner, 2012; Hall, 1978; Surette, 2006). Stranger sexual predation fits this script quite well, whereas domestic violence incidents, which occur away from public view, do not. Domestic violence crimes bring to light the patriarchal danger faced by women in private social spheres, something the media has also been reluctant to delve into, despite decades of feminist work to expose it (Websdale, 1996). Whatever the cause of the discrepancy, the consequence is the same—the role played by domestic violence is marginalized in the media constructions of violence against women at large.
Review of the Literature
Victim-Blaming in the Media
Even when domestic violence is covered in the media, it is often done in a way that displays many problematic features and patterns. One of the most well established critiques of media representations of domestic violence is that they disproportionately focus on the behavior of women in contributing to domestic violence. The media focus on women victims is no surprise given the elevation of crime victims in political discourse over the past few decades (Gottschalk 2014; Page 2011; Simon, 2009). However, battered women receive distinctly gendered treatment. An abundance of scholarship has documented a disproportionate media focus on the victims in domestic violence cases, exhibiting a tendency to search for and find reasons to imply that they are somehow culpable for the abuse they suffer (Benedict, 1993; Berns, 2004; Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Carmody, 1998; DeKeseredy, 2010; Dragiewicz, 2011; Howe, 1997; Kozol, 1995; McDonald, 1999; Meyers, 1994, 2004; Richards, Lane, & Dwayne Smith, 2011; Taylor, 2009). Nancy Berns’s (2004) book, Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence Media and Social Problems, provides perhaps the most thorough discussion of these patterns. Berns argues that media reporting on domestic violence almost always focuses on the victim, implying that the violence is an individual problem owned by the victim, from which only she can extricate herself. This logic opens the door for victim blaming, because it encourages the media and public to wonder why women do not leave such situations (Berns, 2004; Dragiewicz, 2011; Howe, 1997). Some media reports do explore the economic and structural barriers that battered women must overcome to leave an abusive partner, and some acknowledge that leaving an abuser is when a battered woman is most likely to be killed by her partner (Berns, 2004). More often, media reports offer explanations that dehumanize and blame battered women.
Victim-blaming discourses are generally based on patriarchal ideas concerning normative or “emphasized” femininity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Emphasized femininity is essentially an ideal type comprising womanly attributes that complement hegemonic masculinity (e.g., being subservient, nurturing, temperate, faithful, chaste). Victim-blaming logic holds that when women do not meet such norms, particularly in a way that challenges them, they are tempting male violence. Thus, the reasons for which the media often blame abused women include, but are not limited to:
• Being unfaithful to a male partner.
• Being an alcoholic or a drug user.
• Being drunk or intoxicated by illegal drugs at the time of the incident.
• Having a criminal history, especially for violent or sexual crimes.
• “Nagging” or hectoring a male partner.
• Failing to be supportive of a male partner.
• Not being adequately attentive to children or otherwise meeting motherly expectations.
At the same time, U.S. society is highly individualistic, valuing traits such as autonomy and individual strength. Women are not immune to norms based on these characteristics. They are expected to be strong enough to confront their abuser, and thus not leaving an abuser is one of the most common reasons for which battered women are implicated in their own abuse by the media (Berns, 2004; Taylor, 2009). When abused women do defend themselves, or when there is any evidence of their use of violence, media reports tend to imply that acts of domestic violence are cases of mutual combat. Even in cases of femicide, when the domestic violence has ended in a murder, media reports sometimes imply that the violence was somewhat mutual (Kozol, 1995; Taylor, 2009).
Media constructions of abusers also articulate with victim-blaming logic. Even as the media often engage in victim blaming, they often excuse offenders. Media reports tend to highlight factors that may be somewhat outside of an abuser’s control, such as mental illness or sudden financial woes, as contributing to acts of domestic violence. This is particularly true in cases of femicide-suicide, when the abuser commits suicide after murdering his partner (Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Taylor (2009) has argued that these phenomena are essentially two sides of the same coin. She conceptualizes each as direct and indirect victim blaming:
Victims are blamed directly and indirectly for their own femicides. Direct tactics include using negative language to describe the victim, highlighting her choices not to report past incidences, and portraying her actions with other men as contributing to her murder. Indirect tactics include using sympathetic language to describe the perpetrator; emphasizing the perpetrator’s mental, physical, emotional, and financial problems; highlighting the victim’s mental or physical problems; and describing domestic violence in terms that assign equal blame to both partners.
Identifying the inclusion of victim-blaming discourses in media reports on domestic violence has been one of the most important and widely recognized insights generated by critical feminist research on such representations. The media’s eagerness to blame women for being battered perhaps most clearly illuminates how patriarchal reasoning undergirds the way media agents construct representations of domestic violence. However, other features illustrate the same truth.
The Prevalence, Diversity, and Etiology of Domestic Violence
Feminist critics argue that media representations fail to comprehensively address domestic violence (Howe, 1997; Kozol, 1995). Especially before the 1970s and 80s, media representations tended to cultivate the impression that domestic violence is an issue of significance mainly for private social spheres, rather than something that must be addressed collectively and publicly. The media today less often portray domestic violence as a private issue, but at times this theme persists in coverage. Many critics also argue that media coverage of violence against women fails to adequately communicate its seriousness, complexity, and/or pervasiveness (Benedict, 1993; Howe, 1997; Kozol, 1995; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998).
News media often dedicate copious amounts of coverage to cases that are particularly sensational or involve celebrities. Recent cases involving professional football players, such as Ray Rice and Johnny Manziel, illustrate this (Bien, 2014; Bonesteel, 2016). However, seemingly mundane incidents receive much less coverage, and are often not recognized as domestic violence at all (Chagnon, 2014; Kozol, 1995; McDonald, 1999; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Studies have found that only in a minority of domestic violence homicides dooes the news media actually identify the events as domestic violence incidents (Chagnon, 2014; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Furthermore, when mundane cases are reported, media rarely provide context by linking incidents to other cases or broader trends or patterns.
This focus on particularly severe or sensational celebrity cases means the media ignore less obvious forms of domestic violence and the connections among various types of violence against women. For instance, until the 1980s media did not fully recognize marital rape as a crime, never mind characterize it as an act of domestic violence. Helen Benedict’s (1993) book, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, carefully documents how mainstream media long debated the existence of an actual crime in the infamous rape case, involving the rape of Greta Rideout by her husband, John. The case, was one of the first widely discussed instances of marital rape in the United States. Coverage of the case included various media sources and pundits questioning if it was a “real rape,” since, they asserted, married men have sexual rights to their wives at any time. The media’s complicity in furthering arguments justifying marital rape is problematic on its own. However, it is also important to consider the myopia illustrated by the case. Instead of considering how marital rape is one type of violence on a broader spectrum of partner abuse, media focused on discerning whether such cases were “real rapes.” As various scholars have pointed out, this narrow conceptualization obstructs a holistic social construction of violence against women, framing each type of violence (e.g., rape, domestic violence, stalking) as independent phenomena, rather than as a constellation of homologous violence (Howe, 1997; Kozol, 1995).
Media representations also reflect historical myopia when it comes to domestic violence, and violence against women as a whole. Media discussions of domestic violence often ignore previous reporting on the issue, even within the same outlet, describing domestic violence events as shocking and surprising, despite the fact that such violence has been a consistent presence in various societies for millennia (Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Kozol (1995) argues that the media continually “rediscover” domestic violence, acting as if it were an emergent problem every time there is a new wave of public concern. The United States has seen several waves of concern over domestic violence, dating back to at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the early temperance movement and first-wave feminism. Yet, when the O.J. Simpson case sparked a national conversation about the issue, press reports did little (or nothing) to acknowledge such a historical legacy (Kozol, 1995). This not only involves a degree of disingenuous shock at each prominent case of domestic violence, but it also entails forgetting the issue periodically, allowing its visibility to slip away while it remains pervasive.
Media also fail to carefully examine the causes of domestic violence. News items rarely delve into the causes of crimes, and crimes of domestic violence are no exception (Surette, 2006; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). However, when they do examine what causes domestic violence, the media often explain the crime in terms of mutual combat, psychological pathology, extreme duress, or as the act of a particularly criminal deviant (Berns, 2004; Dragiewicz, 2011; Meyers, 1994). As well, media often imply that domestic violence is a product of sudden and uncontrollable anger. For example, take this excerpt from an interview conducted by Barbara Walters with Robyn Givens, Mike Tyson’s former spouse, about his abuse of her:
WALTERS: What happens?
Ms. GIVENS: He gets out of control—throwing, screaming . . .
WALTERS: Does he hit you?
Ms. GIVENS: He shakes, he pushes, he swings. And just recently, I’ve become afraid.
(Downs & Walters, 1992)
Givens’ comments are representative of the media’s frequent presentation of domestic violence as individualistic and relatively spontaneous instead of a systematic pattern of behavior intended to control a female partner. Conversely, what is rarely, if ever discussed in news stories on domestic violence are the cultural, institutional, and structural causes of this violence. Factors like patriarchy, masculinity, privilege, and dominance are almost never mentioned (Berns, 2004; Kozol, 1995; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Essentially the news media covers domestic violence in a way that emphasizes individualistic rather than social causes. This coverage distracts from the ways in which structural and cultural arrangements contribute to the violence.
Overall, media representations give a rather partial accounting of domestic violence that obscures the pervasiveness and diversity of the problem, and ignores its historical legacy. Moreover, media only selectively engage the causal dynamics of domestic violence. Instead of acknowledging social-structural factors, such as patriarchy and masculinity, the media emphasize individualistic and supposedly spontaneous nature of woman abuse.
Reporting Techniques and Linguistic Flaws
While media accounts spend little if any time examining the causes of domestic violence and its complexity, journalists often go to great efforts to discuss the details of single events. News on domestic violence, specifically in the cases of femicide, often dedicates much attention to such elements as the location of a crime, weapons used, locations and number of wounds inflicted, the positioning of a body, physical descriptions of the scene, accounts of the victim’s last moments, and the like. This mode of reporting is known as “forensic reporting” (Websdale, 1996). The following is an example of forensic reporting of a femicide-suicide that appeared in the New York Times article “Bronx Woman is Found Murdered in Her Bed,” chronicling a:
A 13-year-old Bronx boy getting ready for school yesterday morning walked into his mother’s room and found her murdered in her bed, her neck slashed and a bloodied ax laying beside her, the police said.
A short time later, a man’s body was found hanging from a tree in Secaucus, N.J. and the police identified him last night as the woman’s husband.
The teenager called the police at 7:53 a.m. yesterday and said that his mother, [the victim], 32, had been killed in her bedroom in their two-story home at 2765 Fenton Avenue in the Baychester section of the Bronx, Officer Noreen Murray, a police spokeswoman, said.
“The found a hatchet in her bed,” said a police official who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
About a half-hour later, as police officers from the 49th Precinct were speaking to the boy and searching for clues in the Bronx, the police in Secaucus made a grisly discovery of their own.
In the above excerpt, the article focuses solely on the details of the singular crime in question, and police accounts serve as the main source of information. Because police sources generally focus on the details of individual incidents, such articles revolve around the minutiae of criminal incidents. At no point in this excerpt is the crime identified as an act of domestic violence. In fact, the term “domestic violence” does not even appear until the next to last paragraph, where the history of violence in the relationship is mentioned, “The [deceased couple] had a history of marital discord, and were known to the domestic violence counselors of the 49th Precinct.” This provides only a sliver of context and locates the murder as another domestic violence incident. However, the article immediately goes on to report that the crime was somewhat inexplicable, reporting that “neighbors on the Boothes’ block in Baychester were shocked by the news.”
Journalists employ this mode of reporting in an effort to bring the incident to life, providing so much detail that readers or audience members can visualize the events. What journalists may see as rich description of events, others might argue is sensational crime reporting. Details about a “slashed neck” or “bloodied ax” likely do less to educate the public about crime, and more to stoke the fears and anxieties surrounding violent crime. Furthermore, characterizing femicidess as “shocking” belies the fact that such murders are often the crescendo of a pattern of escalating violence, and are thus somewhat predictable (Dragiewicz, 2011). Regardless of how it is characterized, the upshot of this kind of reporting is the same—the audience is encouraged to learn “more and more about less” (Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Essentially, it educates the audience a great deal about police procedures and the physical details of crime. It illuminates little to nothing about the social context of these crimes, and in fact, does a great deal to mystify the violence.
The excerpt from the Times article highlights another problematic reporting technique. The passive voice abounds in the article, specifically when the writer is describing the actions of the abuser. The headline states that the “woman was found murdered,” and her son reported she “had been killed.” Instead, the article could have directly stated that the husband killed his wife. Using the passive voice is a well-documented syntactical technique reporters use when describing violence against women. Henley, Miller, and Beazley (1995) found that reporters were more likely to use passive voice when describing acts of violence against women, even though the passive construction goes against basic and widely held journalistic conventions concerning conciseness. Moreover, the researchers found that the use of passive voice caused readers to attribute less seriousness and harm to acts of rape and domestic abuse. Jackson Katz (1999) has demonstrated the logical effect of this practice. Clearly, he argues, these types of descriptions erase the role of abusers. When a woman is reported to “have been killed,” the person who did the killing disappears from the text and often from the mind of the reader. The effect, he argues, is that men’s role in violence against women remains hidden. Furthermore, it helps to maintain media consumers’ focus on the actions of the women victims, particularly in regards to what they might have done to bring harm upon themselves.
Others have made a similar argument concerning the most commonly used terms to describe wife abuse in the media. Feminist scholars have asserted that terms such as “domestic violence,” “partner violence,” and “family violence” obscure the underlying social relations that give rise to woman abuse (Dragiewicz, 2011; Meyers, 1994). They are gender-neutral terms that elide the underlying reality that most of the violence that occurs in families and other intimate social relations is perpetrated by men against women. Perhaps less obviously, these terms also fail to bring to light the nuanced intersections of class, race, and gender relations that give rise to acts of violence against women (Meyers, 1994).
Media agents thus employ a number of techniques and conventions that contribute to distorted representations of domestic violence. Some of these elements are rather clear, such as the focus on forensic details. But many of them are subtle and nuanced, such as the semantic techniques that obscure the gendered relations that are inherent in domestic violence.
Forensic reporting and victim-blaming discourses are not only significant in and of themselves; they are also important because they are the constituent components used to construct news frames (Berns, 2004; Johnson-Cartee, 2005). Framing is a diagnostic and prescriptive discursive process, essentially implying answers to the questions, “what is this a case of,” “who is responsible,” and “how should it be addressed?” (Iyengar, 1994; Johnson-Cartee, 2005). Examining frames is a centrally important analytical task in any media analysis, and media coverage of domestic violence is no exception to that. Various studies have examined the frames the media employs when it covers domestic violence incidents (Berns, 2004; Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Chagnon, 2014; Gillespie et al., 2013). The results have reinforced the validity of existing critiques and have further illustrated the selective nature of media coverage.
The lack of social context and pervasive use of forensic reporting are mainstays of what Bullock and Cubert (2002) call the “police frame,” which is perhaps the most commonly used news frame when it comes to domestic violence. Victim blaming is a cornerstone of the individualized framing that Berns (2004) contends permeates magazine reporting on this issue. Victim blaming, she says, keeps the focus on the victim’s actions, both in terms of precipitating the violence and ending it by leaving the abuser.
Another common frame used in reporting on domestic violence is what might be called the “mystifying tragedy” frame. Taylor (2009) has found that reporters and journalists often quote the neighbors or acquaintances of victim and perpetrator, who express shock that such a crime could happen, often remarking that the couple appeared “normal.” This reporting, as already noted, in stark contrast to the reality that femicide is often the end of a long pattern of escalating violence. The following passage about a former college star murdering his wife, taken from Chagnon’s (2016) study, exemplifies the mystifying tragedy frame:
Terry Underwood, a standout running back for Wagner College when it won a Division III national championship in 1987 and a three-time all-American, has been arrested and charged with murdering his wife . . .
. . . Former teammates and coaches of Underwood, who went on to play in the Canadian Football League and in Europe, reacted with shock to the charges yesterday . . . This is a very tragic incident,” said Brian Ansell, Underwood’s lawyer. “I’m sure you can understand that he is very upset over this incident. He does maintain his innocence . . .”
. . . “He was a terrific kid, good work ethic, good sense of humor, who fit in well,” said Mark Collins, the head coach at St. Peter’s College, who was an assistant at Wagner when Underwood was there. “I don’t recall a dark side or a bad temper.”
(T. Smith, 1998)
Ironically, this passage expresses sympathy for the offender rather than the victim. Moreover, beyond explicitly calling the murder a tragedy, it includes some classic elements of the mystifying tragedy frame, including the element of shock and the notion that the perpetrator was “normal,” and not the type of deviant who would perpetrate domestic violence. This frame obscures domestic violence as a pattern of behavior, and it implies that “normal” men do not commit these crimes.
Some scholars have found that media reports do at times use what is often referred to as “social-problem,” or “social-justice,” framing (Berns, 2004; Chagnon, 2014; Gillespie et al., 2013). This frame contextualizes the violence and shows readers the pervasiveness of domestic violence. The social-problem frames also acknowledge the social structural and cultural roots of the issue, implying that serious institutional reforms and cultural change are the only ways to end domestic violence. Berns (2004) found that left-leaning political magazines often employed the social-justice frame, applying a more or less feminist logic to reporting on violence against women. However, as Berns pointed out, this frame was largely absent in magazines targeted at wider audiences. Generally, social-problem or social-justice framing is the exception, not the rule. For instance, Gillespie et al. (2013) found that the social-problem frame was present in only 25 percent of femicide articles that identified a crime as domestic violence, and only 54.4 percent of all femicide articles in the sample identified cases as such (meaning only 13.6 percent of articles used the social-problem frame). Additionally, Chagnon (2016) found that social-problem framing decreased through the late 1990s and 2000s.
Research shows that media representations most often frame domestic violence in ways that either encourage victim-blaming logic or are relatively dismissive of the violence. Media also use frames that mystify domestic violence murders, implying that they are unavoidable, inexplicable “tragedies.” But studies on framing have also found evidence that media coverage does problematize and contextualize domestic violence at times.
Backlash Politics and Gender Symmetry
Those encouraging elements are due largely to feminist activism in the mid- to late 20th century, often referred to as feminism’s “second wave.” This wave of activism included efforts to publicize and politicize violence against women, the successes of which are evidenced by media coverage of the issue. However, the gains won by second-wave feminists were quickly contested, and remain so. This contestation has played out in media coverage of domestic violence, as well as that of other gendered issues.
Since the 1980s, a right-wing movement has sprung up to push back against the political gains won by second-wave feminists, which include divorce law reform and the 1994 passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Susan Faludi (1991) referred to this phenomenon as the “antifeminist backlash.” Groups engaging in backlash politics, often calling themselves “men’s rights” or “fathers’ rights” groups, are often dedicated to the issue of domestic violence in the United States and in other nations, such as Canada and Australia (DeKeseredy, 1999; Dragiewicz, 2011). Although men’s rights groups tend to be on the political fringe, mainstream media gives voice to backlash perspectives. Antifeminist backlash discourses are most commonly found in media targeting a male, conservative, or libertarian audience, such as readers of Playboy or Reason magazines, but they are also found in more widely circulating media products, such as network television news (Berns, 2004; DeKeseredy, 1999).
The backlash movement has pursued two major interrelated goals—discrediting feminist research and de-gendering conversations about violence against women. To achieve both goals, men’s rights groups, as well as the pundits who are sympathetic to them, engage in claims making, citing contested research as “definitive” evidence that domestic violence is not a problem of male violence but simply violence and arguing that such studies prove that feminist perspectives are biased and invalid.
Some scholars assert that women are in fact just as, or more, violent than men within intimate relationships, advocating a perspective known as “gender symmetry” (Steinmetz, 1977; Straus & Ramirez, 2007; Strauss & Gelles, 1990). The majority of gender symmetry studies rely on large quantitative surveys employing an inventory called the conflict tactics scale (CTS). These large-scale studies have generally found that men and women engage in equal amounts of partner violence. Feminist scholars have issued various rebuttals of CTS research, often concerning methodological flaws. Instruments like the CTS that find “evidence” of gender symmetry, feminist scholars note, fail to ask about the intent or motive of the person committing the violence (whether it is defensive or offensive), and they do not include aspects of male violence (such as stalking and sexual assault) that women rarely commit (DeKeseredy, 2011a, 2011b; Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992; Melton & Belknap, 2003; Miller, 2005). The CTS also makes false equivalencies between nonequivalent acts, for example, throwing a pair of socks and throwing a rock. Feminist scholars also point out that even CTS-based research finds that women are more likely to be severely injured or die from partner violence. The CTS does illuminate the important fact that women can be violent in relationships, too, but as Weston, Temple, and Marshall (2005) point out, this perspective risks conflating mutual violence with symmetrical violence. The value and validity of CTS research is an ongoing debate, but regardless of that debate, CTS research does not negate the value of feminist research and perspectives.
Feminist scholars also criticize the coverage of the gender symmetry debate because of the media’s acritical acceptance of selective and misleading claims made by antifeminist groups (DeKeseredy, 1999; Dragiewicz, 2011; Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 1993). Dekeseredy (1999) has argued that not only does media give backlash politics a public platform, but journalists also accept those claims without subjecting them to the same fact-checking to which they subject feminist sources. For instance, some media reports have relayed the fallacious claims that battered women’s shelters refuse to provide services for battered men. Even Murray Strauss, whose work helped to establish the gender symmetry perspective, has acknowledged that antifeminists misuse his research (Kimmel, 2002). But it is the media’s overall approach to covering the gender symmetry debate that is perhaps most troubling. Basic journalistic conventions maintain that reporters should give equal voice to “both sides” of a debate (Berns, 2004; Dragiewicz, 2011; Gans, 1979). This standard has been adopted in the interest of maintaining balance and objectivity; however, it often results in media outlets simplifying complex issues into two polarized perspectives (Chancer, 2005). In the case of domestic violence, the press creates a binary between feminist perspectives and gender symmetry, suggesting that the validity of one perspective invalidates the other (Dragiewicz, 2011; Kimmel, 2002). Kimmel (2002) and other scholars have pointed out that gender symmetry and feminist perspectives may not be mutually exclusive. He differentiates between “expressive” and “instrumental” family violence. The former is the violence identified in the CTS studies, which tends to be sporadic or incidental, relatively nonserious, nonescalating, and more gender symmetric. The latter is the violence identified by feminist scholars, which tends to be systematic and oriented toward partner domination, severe, escalating, and almost solely perpetrated by men against women. The validity of Kimmel’s argument is debatable. However, the important point to consider with respect to the media’s treatment of domestic violence is that media constructions polarize the debate so as to exclude such a nuanced hypothesis.
There is some reason to believe that the media was less eager to present antifeminist perspectives after the 1980s and 1990s, as the novelty of the backlash against second-wave feminism wore off but that it may be gaining prominence as discussions about college sexual assault intensify. Chagnon (2016) found that antifeminist backlash was commonly included in New York Times reporting during the 1990s, before decreasing in the 2000s, but rose again around 2010.
It seems antifeminist rhetoric is being used currently to counter rising movements to combat rape on college campuses. The work of Emily Yoffe, whose column in Slate magazine, Doublex: What Women Really Think About News, Politics and Culture, is a clear illustration of this. Yoffe has written several articles critical of anti-rape activism on college campuses, generally exhibiting the same pattern. Yoffe begins her articles by briefly acknowledging the seriousness of the issue but then goes on to attempt to discredit claims made by activists. She often does so by attempting to discredit feminist research on rape and describing cases she frames as false accusations or failing to meet the standards of “real rape.” Her articles also posit that claims about college sexual assault have become so exaggerated that they constitute a moral panic, resulting in policies that victimize innocent men. For instance, take the following comments from one of her pieces, titled “The College Rape Overcorrection”:
Unfortunately, under the worthy mandate of protecting victims of sexual assault, procedures are being put in place at colleges that presume the guilt of the accused. Colleges, encouraged by federal officials, are instituting solutions to sexual violence against women that abrogate the civil rights of men . . .
. . . Any woman who is raped, on campus or off, deserves a fair and thorough investigation of her claim, and those found guilty should be punished. But the new rules—rules often put in place hastily and in response to the idea of a rape epidemic on campus—have left some young men saying they are the ones who have been victimized.
Yoffe’s work is not unique. It closely follows the examples set by earlier antifeminist pundits, such as Katie Roiphe. Roiphe gained notoriety in the early nineties for writing about what she saw as exaggerated concerns over sexual assault and the oppressive nature of feminism (Roiphe, 1994). Moreover, Yoffe’s work is complemented by more prominent, right-wing, male columnists, such as George Will, who have authored similar pieces (Will, 2014).
Much like the claims-making activities of men’s rights groups, such essays often make use of contested social science research and polemics against feminist perspectives. For instance, many of these pundits have cited a study by Kanin (1994), which claimed to find that 41% of rape claims are fallacious, despite the fact that numerous subsequent studies that have strongly criticized his methodology or found a far lower prevalence rate (2%–10%; Gavey & Gow, 2001; Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010). The exact prevalence of false accusations is another ongoing empirical debate among scholars of violence, but there is consensus that they are rare (Gavey & Gow, 2001; Koss & Harvey, 1991; Lisak et al., 2010). These essays also often posit that feminist conceptions of rape are too broad, for instance by questioning whether victims claiming to be raped while intoxicated are really just cases of “hook ups” gone wrong, rather than “real rapes.” They claim that feminist activism regarding violence against women has become a force oppressing young men, often privileged ones. Such claims-making displays the same pattern as that described regarding men’s rights groups and domestic violence. It mischaracterizes and misframes scholarly debates as “proof” of the oppressive and biased nature of feminist scholarship and activism.
Men’s rights activism is supported by this influential cadre of pundits who periodically pen antifeminist essays dedicated to reframing concerns over domestic violence and rape. While the recent rhetoric coming from these parties has focused on rape on college campuses, it has in the past focused on domestic violence, for example, before the passage of Violence Against Women Act, and men’s rights groups worked continuously to roll back anti-domestic-violence polices and statutes such as VAWA (Faludi, 1991). Should the problems of domestic violence rise in media prominence again, it would likely be the subject of antifeminist columnists’ work. Though they do not dominate everyday media coverage of violence against women, such authors serve as powerful opinion influencers, and thus constitute a topic important for understanding how the media frame this issue.
Intersectionality and Domestic Violence in the Media
Feminist activism against patriarchal violence has deep roots in the women’s movement. The Declaration of Sentiments makes strong statements talking about the fact that in “marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband . . . the law giving him the power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement”(Atkins, 1969, p. 6). Later, those involved in the temperance movement used domestic violence as one justification for the prohibition of alcohol (Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Second-wave feminists did clearly focus on issues of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as we have noted, but some have focused on shortcomings in their approach. Feminists of color have criticized second-wave feminists for promoting a universalistic vision of feminism based on the experiences of middle-class white women, ignoring the experiences of racially and economically marginalized women. Beginning in the 1980s, third-wave feminist scholars have argued for an approach, known as “intersectionality,” that accounts not just for the stratifying power of gender, but other vectors of power, such as race, class, sexual orientation, and citizenship (Burgess-Proctor, 2006; Potter, 2008; Richie, 2003; Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005).
Contemporary studies using this intersectional approach have shown how constructions of domestic violence are structured along class and race lines (Chancer, 1994; Kozol, 1995; Meyers, 1994, 2004). News coverage of domestic violence tends to be more sympathetic or outraged when the victims are privileged, and less so when they belong to marginalized groups. The converse is true of offenders; news coverage featuring privileged offenders often excuses or justifies their acts and tends to vilify marginalized offenders.
Intersectional analyses of crime media has revealed how media use various discourses to construct “ideal” and “unworthy” victims, contingent on discourses of race, class, and accordance of gender norms (Benedict, 1993; Chancer, 1994; Meyers, 2004). The media’s “ideal” victim is one that best fits with hegemonic notions about mainstream society, meaning that she is white, economically successful, heterosexual, and feminine. For instance, the O. J. Simpson case not only drew much media attention, it precipitated a long-lasting conversation in the media about domestic violence as a social issue. Furthermore, though Nicole Brown Simpson was subjected to victim blaming at times, much of the coverage of the case was highly sympathetic to her. S she became an iconic victim, and her murder became symbolic of the wider issue of domestic abuse (Chancer, 2005; Kozol, 1995). Much like the famous Central Park jogger rape case, the Simpson case elicited much sympathy in the media because it featured a racial dynamic in which a white, wealthy woman was victimized by non-white attackers. Conversely, victims who do not fit this profile very often receive harsher or dismissive coverage. Often these cases elicit sparse and unremarkable media coverage that does little to evoke public concerns over this violence (Chagnon, 2014). At other times, nonwhite and poor victims are more often subjected to victim blaming (Chancer, 2005; Meyers, 2004).
Similarly, the media holds privileged offenders less culpable for beating or killing their partners,, while marginalized ones are often demonized for it (Chagnon, 2014; Chancer, 2005; Howe, 1997; Kozol, 1995; McDonald, 1999; Meyers, 1994). Generally speaking, media coverage frames domestic violence as a crime most often committed by lower class or otherwise marginalized men. Furthermore, media reports often apply racist logic in explaining domestic violence among nonwhite men but mitigate white males’ culpability. McDonald (1999) compared the treatment given to two sports figures, baseball player Wil Cordero and football coach Dan McCarney. McDonald showed how Wil Cordero’s Hispanic culture and his upbringing in poverty were used to explain his wife battering, while McCarney’s similar crimes were framed as a result of individual pathology. In her analysis of the Simpson case, Kozol (1995) also documented how media often play on racial tensions in reporting on domestic violence. She argues that media emphasized the interracial nature of the Simpsons’ relationship, alluding to stereotypes about black men’s sexual appetite for white women, and points out that Time magazine darkened Simpson’s face in a photograph to make him appear more threatening.
Meyer’s (1994) case study of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of a murder-suicide provides a particularly vivid intersectional analysis of the ways that class, race, and gender discourses operate to mystify domestic violence. The Journal-Constitution framed the case, involving a socially prominent middle-class white man who murdered his wife, as a spontaneous, tragic crime perpetrated by a mentally distraught husband who had merely “snapped” during an argument with his estranged wife. This coverage conflicted with a documented history of abuse and evidence that the murder was premeditated, Meyers asserts. The study shows how the offender’s middle-class standing and prominence in the community were highlighted, whereas the victim was racialized and classed as “white trash.” Furthermore, media coverage equated the husband’s abuse, such as forcing his wife to play Russian roulette, with the victim’s actions, framed as provocation, such as wearing suggestive clothing. Journalists covering the case essentially covered it as a tragic episode caused by mental strain, brought on by a dysfunctional relationship. Meyers posits that a more careful consideration of the case would have shown it to be the deadly culmination of a long pattern of abuse by a man who had raped and battered his wife for years.
Media coverage does not simply dismiss domestic violence but uses discourses of class, race, and gender to create distorted representations. Some cases elicit outraged reactions from journalists, yet this tends to only happen when the victims are “ideal.” In cases featuring nonideal victims, the media pays far less attention or is dismissive of the violence. Mediated discussions of the race and class backgrounds of victims and offender are often used to impugn or glorify them as well. Because of this, media representations of domestic violence send the public with misleading messages that fail to acknowledge the pervasiveness and distinctive social patterns of this crime.
Media and Domestic Violence Globally
Media representations of domestic violence do not only contain coded messages about racialized groups in the West. Media analyses informed by feminist work with a global outlook have found important themes in how the media constructs violence against women abroad. Perhaps most importantly, recent research suggests that mainstream media are increasingly paying attention to patriarchal violence in Islamic nations.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration used the violent, patriarchal oppression of women in Afghanistan and Iraq as a partial justification for the U.S. wars in those nations (Eisenstein, 2010; Ferguson, 2005). News outlets often relayed claims that U.S. occupation of Islamic nations had played a partial role in liberating Muslim women from patriarchal oppression. In fact, New York Times coverage of rape and domestic violence in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia increased sharply after 9/11 (Chagnon, 2016). Coverage often employed a cultural explanation in reference to acts of domestic violence or rape in these countries, implying that this violence was disproportionate in those nations and linking it to traditional Islamic culture. This pattern is not unique to U.S. media, however. In a case study on Swedish media coverage of an honor killing, Reimers (2007) detailed how the Swedish media had defined honor killings in Europe as a matter of immigrant assimilation. News reports framed the case as resulting from familial tensions between a young Kurdish woman and her father. Reports documented how the young woman had integrated into Swedish society, for instance, evidenced by her dating a Swedish man. News outlets reported her father, however, had been unable to adapt to his new country, for instance, evidenced by his failure to learn the language or acquire a Swedish driver’s license. Associating the victim with Swedish society, and her father with traditional Kurdish culture, the media emphasized the role of Islamic traditionalism in causing domestic violence, while obscuring the persistence of femicides in Sweden’s supposedly gender egalitarian society.
Ferguson (2005) has argued that these discourses create an orientalist (Said, 1979) juxtaposition that frames Western countries as progressive and egalitarian, and foreign cultures as backward and regressive. This performs a troubling dual function, stoking racist anxieties about the Islamic world and creating the impression that women in Western nations enjoy full equality. This perception exacerbates racism, and provides cover for imperialist actions in developing nations (Eisenstein, 2010). Specifically, it provides a feminist guise that U.S. militarists have used to justify war in nations such as Afghanistan. Conversely, this manner of coverage dampens concerns about the domestic violence still occurring in Western societies.
When considering domestic violence from a global or transnational perspective, it is also important to keep in mind colonialism and indigeneity. There is a dearth of research specifically on media representations of domestic violence in colonial contexts or among indigenous communities. However, the literature that does exist provides some important lessons. First, indigenous women as victims of domestic violence tend to be largely invisible in the media. Various critics have pointed this out in relation to missing and murdered women in Canada (Gilchrist, 2010; Jiwani & Young, 2006). In general, victimizations of indigenous women go unnoticed by mainstream media, and when they are covered, the media dedicates less coverage to them compared to victimizations of white women. Indigenous women are often de-raced in such coverage as well. When an indigenous women is murdered, the media may cover the crime in a “colorblind” manner, which effectively erases consideration of the possible role that racism may play in violence, both in motivating a perpetrator and as a structural arrangement that exacerbates social marginality. Much of the research on the Canadian context focuses on sexual violence against indigenous women. However, given the overlap between sexual and domestic violence, as well as the similarities in media coverage of these crimes, the lessons can logically be extrapolated to domestic violence, as well as to sexual attacks on indigenous women (Lowman, 2000; Smith, 2003). Taken together, these two conclusions suggest that indigenous women are invisible in two ways: by being left out of coverage and by the fact that media ignore their experiences of racialism.
The other main theme from the literature on indigenous women concerns the stigmatizing manner in which media feature them as victims. Often indigenous women are stigmatized using some of the classic victim-blaming themes that are applied to other women of color and poor women (Gilchrist, 2010; McCallum, 2007). For instance, media reports often cite involvement in sex work to imply that indigenous women are partially to blame when they are victimized. This is particularly noteworthy given historical sexualized stereotypes of indigenous women, such as the “squaw” narrative, which dehumanize indigenous women and encourage their abuse (Lowman, 2000). Chagnon’s (2014) content analysis of femicides in Hawaii complements the work done on the Canadian context by showing similar processes at work in another settler colonial context. Though this study did not focus directly on Native Hawaiians, it found that Hawaii newspapers tend to give more favorable coverage to middle- and upper-class victims. Since class, race, and indigeneity are so deeply intertwined in Hawaii, as they are in other colonial contexts, class here serves as an indirect proxy for race. Furthermore, Chagnon found that Hawaiian newspapers were more likely to blame Filipina victims. Although Filipinas are not an indigenous group in Hawaii, they are a subordinated group Hawaii’s ethnic hierarchy, established under colonialism. Such results point to the diverse and complex ways that mediated racialization works in colonial societies. There is also evidence that when media covers domestic violence among indigenous communities as an issue, such violence is used as reason to cast the entire community as deviant (McCallum, 2007; Smith, 2003). Examining media coverage of domestic violence in aboriginal Australian communities, McCallum (2007) found that domestic violence was one factor the media used to portray Australia’s indigenous peoples as inherently violent, backward, and a threat to national social stability.
Ethnocentrism is hardly a novel phenomenon, but these are relatively new and promising areas of research. Considering the recently heightened mistrust of and hostility toward immigrants and Muslims throughout the West and the continued proliferation of global capitalism, imperialist racist discourse will likely continue to be socially influential. In particular, it illuminates the reality that the media’s treatment of domestic violence has implications far broader than the issue itself, or even U.S. domestic social relations. Moreover, growing awareness of the vulnerability of indigenous women worldwide makes media coverage of domestic violence in these communities an increasingly important focus for future research. Furthermore, with the growing influence of transnational feminist scholarship and increasing importance of research on globalization and migration, these topics will likely be important growth areas for those wishing to further advance research on violence against women in the media.
Beyond Backlash and Forensic Journalism: The Need for Feminist Media
The preceding discussion reviews a well-established body of scholarship on the media’s problematic coverage of domestic violence, as well detailing some current and emerging trends in this area. After second-wave feminists raised the issue, the media began to readily cover violence against women, yet their representations have often been highly misleading and selective. Media coverage gives short shrift to the prevalence and nature of domestic violence by ignoring its pervasiveness throughout various social strata and emphasizing individualistic causes for the violence. News coverage and other media products that engage the long history of woman abuse and/or its roots in our mainstream patriarchal culture are few and far between.
Some of the basic reporting techniques and strategies that journalists employ are a major reason why coverage is so distorted. Journalists often focus on the minutiae of incidents rather than larger social context (Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Websdale, 1996). Media stories also employ passive voice frequently when reporting on domestic violence, a practice that obscures the roles played by male perpetrators and the seriousness of the violence (Henley et al., 1995). Additionally, the media exhibit a tendency to blame victims of domestic violence, especially regarding ways they fail to live up to patriarchal norms of female behavior (Benedict, 1993; Berns, 2004; Meyers, 2004). Coverage is often tinted with racializing and classist themes that ignore the suffering of marginalized women while playing up marginalized men’s share of domestic violence perpetration (Meyers, 2004). Many analyses have examined the frames used by the media to portray domestic violence. It seems that the media do at times frame domestic violence as a serious social issue, but more often, media frames individualize or mystify the violence or blame the victims (Berns, 2004; Bullock & Cubert, 2002; Gillespie et al., 2013).
The media also gives credence to groups seeking to downplay the seriousness of domestic violence, expressing what is called “backlash politics” or “backlash discourse” (Chesney-Lind, 2006; DeKeseredy, 2010; Dragiewicz, 2011). Backlash discourses challenge the argument that domestic violence is largely a problem of men’s violence against women. While feminist scholars have produced persuasive responses to the claims made by backlash groups, the medias provide an uncritical platform for such arguments. Articles written by conservative columnists are also a particularly important venue for backlash politics. In fact, such columnists seem to be rekindling backlash energies because of recent efforts to address campus sexual assault. Though these pundits have not yet engaged domestic violence (likely because it has fallen off the mainstream news agenda), the history of the backlash movement suggests it should be an ongoing concern for those interested in the media’s treatment of domestic violence.
As we progress through the 21st century, feminist scholars are generating important new critiques of media coverage. Since at least the 9/11 attacks, Western relations with Islamic nations and efforts to combat terrorism have become daily topics in most news outlets, and that coverage sometimes includes discussions of domestic violence. A growing body of research is concerned with how the news dwells on woman abuse in Islamic nations, creating the impression that Islamic cultures are barbaric and backward compared to “progressive” Western nations (Ferguson, 2005; Reimers, 2007). While domestic and other forms of violence against women is surely a serious concern abroad, coverage often fails to acknowledge that they remain very serious issues domestically as well. Media outlets cover domestic violence in colonial contexts in similar ways, implying that the violence is a product of an othered, racialized culture. Though the research on media representations of indigenous women’s experiences with domestic violence is scant, what work has been done suggests that this violence is often invisible in the media. When news outlets do turn their eye to indigenous women’s victimizations, they cover the topic in a way that stigmatizes the victims and their communities.
Ultimately, the media’s treatment of domestic violence is highly contradictory. In some respects, media representations integrate feminist logic, in that they present domestic violence as a problem. However, both the explicit features of these representations and the logics that underlie them work to neutralize the feminist argument that domestic violence is not simply an act of criminal deviance, but a pervasive form of social control that stems from patriarchal culture (Chesney-Lind, 2006; Dragiewicz, 2011). Moreover, media coverage of domestic violence has implications far beyond the issue itself. For example the media’s disparate constructions of marginalized and privileged groups naturalize existing racial and economic inequalities. This logic extends to a cultural level, when the media practice orientalism by juxtaposing a progressive Western culture with a backward Eastern one (Said, 1979). Not only does this perpetuate the otherness of foreign societies, it enables Western imperialism in these nations, including military projects that greatly expand the numbers of women killed and maimed by male violence, whether it is battering or warfare.
Media representations are a product of large-scale cultural forces. Our broader culture is a patriarchal one that prioritizes white heterosexual male perspectives over others, such as feminist and nonwhite ones. The reproduction and reflection of that culture within the media is manifest in various ways, but coverage of domestic violence is a particularly glaring example. Despite readily covering the issue for over four decades, the media still relies on hegemonic logics to make sense of domestic violence, meaning the public is continually misinformed and misdirected. Thus, unless the media adopt a more nuanced and sensitive mode of representation, the public will continue to lack a sophisticated collective vision of this issue and its place in broader social relations.
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