Sensational media coverage sets the public’s agenda

Victoria Zawitkowski
Contributing Columnist

Illustration by Dan Nacu

Our society’s relationship to media has made us reactive to social issues, instead of proactive. Only after a story breaks about domestic or sexual violence does the problem come to the forefront of society’s concerns. We are all aware of our strong connection to all sources of media.

The media may not tell you exactly what to think, but they certainly tell you what to think about. The juiciest of gossip, the hottest stories are what define the major social issues of the moment and the focus of the public agenda. It is when an injustice shows up on the front page or the big screen that it becomes a problem for the rest of the community.

With a new scandal exposing Ray Rice in a domestic violence incident with his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer, national news is abuzz with the issue of domestic violence. Domestic violence is not new to this country or to any community. The Young Women’s Christian Association is one organization that has worked against domestic and sexual violence. According to the YWCA, violence is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings, and rape combined. Victims of intimate partner violence miss approximately 8 million days of paid work in the U.S. alone. This accounts for about 32,000 full time jobs. But it is the entertainment value of a celebrity committing that same crime to garner national attention.

The issue is not that the media raises awareness of certain issues, but that it dictates when and how much we pay attention. Ray Rice was not fired until a video explicitly showing him knocking Palmer unconscious in a hotel elevator surfaced on the Internet and every major news station. But this was the second video of that incident.

Rice was not fired when the first video of him dragging an unconscious Janay Palmer out of the hotel elevator was brought to media attention, or more importantly, when it was brought to the attention of his employers at the National Football League.

Ray Rice is not the first case of domestic violence within the NFL even within the last year. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers were both charged with domestic violence and continue to play for their teams.

I would not be surprised to see new legislation regarding domestic violence after such a public case. At the very least, the NFL may revamp the way it handles domestic violence cases. This is a good thing. However, the question remains: why does it take a celebrity incident of domestic violence before our country calls for action?

O.J. Simpson was also a star player in the NFL during the ’90s. He was charged with the murder of Ronald Goldman and his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson. His trial in 1995 was covered extensively in the news.

An article written by Kimberly Maxwell, John Huxford, Catherine Borum and Robert Hornik examines how the O.J. Simpson case affected newspaper coverage of domestic violence. During the trial they found an increase in the number of articles about domestic violence in the New York Times, the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. Newspapers had taken a single incident and broadened coverage to include more socially-focused stories on domestic violence. But this did not last long. Coverage on the issue decreased in most of the newspapers after the trial was over.

We can commend the role of the media in rallying our communities for an important cause but our priorities should not be dictated by the hot topics on the Internet or television. These examples of domestic violence, while important, are not the first and certainly not the last that we have seen in the United States. In our own Richmond community, domestic violence is a serious issue. The YWCA in Richmond has been working to counsel local survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as well as students at VCU and the University of Richmond.

According to the YWCA, every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States. Consider the amount of time media sources have spent discussing Ray Rice. In that time millions of women may have been assaulted.

Perhaps now there will be more time and money put toward programs educating students on preventing domestic violence,  more resources for survivors and stricter punishment for those in violation of the law. Celebrity cases should not set the precedent for how we approach issues that affect people across our country. Not every victim of domestic violence has a video of their abuse, or a spot on prime time television.

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