Safe + Sound Blog

How Media Talks About Violence Impacts Survivors

The media is a huge entity – from news to social media outlets, television to radio stations. The impact of this is that when a topic or event involving violence is trending, it can feel like the violence is everywhere and that we can’t escape it. As a result, the way the media “talks about” or addresses violence has large consequences on how people feel about, understand, and heal from violence.  

Media can benefit our communities and individuals by raising awareness about different types of violence, warning signs, and how to access it helps. For example, a missing teen in distress was rescued after using a hand gesture signaling “I’m in danger” that she had seen on the social media platform TikTok.1 

The work of investigative journalists may also bring injustices to light, connect survivors, and help them feel like they are not alone. The news features on the long-term sexual assaults within women’s US gymnastics by former doctor Larry Nassar was an example of this. The reporting on this violence encouraged survivors to speak out, putting public pressure on a system to fight for these survivors and raising awareness about sexual assault in our country.  

These are sensitive subjects, so it is important to talk about violence in a way that is as safe and respectful as possible for survivors and everyone else involved. Below are a few ways that media accounts of violence can be harmful for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. 

Descriptions of violence can be retraumatizing, and may not have a trigger warning 

When someone experiences violence, their body usually activates its survival “flight-or-fight” mode. Reading about violence in news stories may trigger someone to remember their own trauma. Even if the survivor is safe and has begun to heal from their past violent experience, their body and mind may return to “fight or flight” mode again. This can lead to symptoms of trauma including flashbacks, increased heart rate, confusion, depression, anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.  

Media outlets might not tell the whole story  

The goal of many media outlets is not just to share factual events; often they also seek to gain as much attention as possible to generate revenue. Stories or segments often tend to focus on the violence that occurred, instead of the opportunities for or actual healing that hopefully follows. 

The stories that gain attention focus on the extremes, instead of the most common experiences of violence  

Again, to gain as much attention as possible, the media tends to focus on extreme cases. For instance, in 2017 there were 2,237 victims of intimate partner homicide in the United States2. Although it is important to share these stories to raise awareness, it is also important to recognize that an estimated 10 million people will experience domestic violence annually.3 Focusing on only the extreme cases makes it harder to bring attention to the everyday lived experience of the vast majority of survivors. Some people may dismiss the seriousness of these more “typical” cases because “They aren’t as bad as what’s in the news”.   

Media outlets pick WHO gets represented in their coverage, leaving many voices and experiences out of the public’s view 

The recent disappearance and homicide of Gabby Petito4 was all over the news and social media, with people across the nation looking for clues and developing theories. While it was important that the case received attention, it also served as a stark reminder of the racial discrepancy in how the media covers the disappearance of people of color. News outlets are more likely to report on cases of missing white individuals, even though people of color are disproportionately at higher risk of going missing. A report in Wyoming, the state where Petito disappeared, showed that only 18% of Wyoming’s 710 missing Indigenous women from 2011-2020 received any media coverage at all.5  

For these reasons and more, a survivor of domestic or sexual violence may look at the media and feel invalidated, dismissed, and re-traumatized. We can acknowledge the good that comes from media reports of violence, while still viewing the content through a critical lens and advocating for safer and more equitable ways to talk publicly about violence. 

If you are a survivor, here are some tips for consuming media safely: 

  • Remember that you have your own power and control when interacting with media 

You have every right to turn something off, leave a movie theater, block someone or something on social media, make your accounts private, or do whatever you need to do to feel safe.  

  • Listening to trigger warnings is a form of self-care. 

By choosing not to engage with content that could be triggering to you, you are setting healthy boundaries and prioritizing your well-being.  

  • Understand that a trigger is not a sign of weakness. 

Healing is not linear, and you may be surprised by some of the things that trigger your trauma history.  

  • Understand that the way media or people in the comments sections talk about violence or survivors does not determine the validity of your experiences or your self-worth.  
  • Know that we are always here to listen. 

At Safe+Sound Somerset, we listen to your experience. We know it was not your fault, and we affirm that you are worthy of safety and respect. 

If you or someone you know has been impacted by domestic or sexual violence and needs help, call or text our 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-685-1122 for support, information, safety planning, and services. Additional information can be found online at www.safe-sound.org 

 

 

1 https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/07/us/missing-teen-hand-gesture-asheville-trnd/index.html

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/us/domestic-violence-victims.html

3 NCADV.org 

4 https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/16/us/gabby-petito-timeline-missing-case/index.html

5 https://apnews.com/article/media-social-media-arizona-race-and-ethnicity-racial-injustice-2fe13213df563f1560dede872890b8f2