Violence and the Media in 2014: Q&A with Lori Dorfman

This piece originally ran on the the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health blog. 

A culture of violence is the antithesis to a Culture of Health. As Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey recently said in a speech to the American Public Health Association, “We will never be a healthy nation, if we continue to be a violent one.”

Violence is always in the news. But 2014 saw several high profile stories about violence dominating news cycles, including major stories about child abuse (Adrian Peterson), intimate partner violence (Ray Rice), sexual assault on college campus, and, of course, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Because media coverage influences the social and political response to violence in America, I wanted to hear from Lori Dorfman, who directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group. She has spent decades monitoring how the media cover violence and other public health issues, helping public health advocates work with journalists, and helping journalists improve their coverage. The following is an excerpt of my interview with her.

How would you rate media coverage of violence over the last few months?

What we’ve seen is typical coverage. Despite some horrifying events—the decision not to indict St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown, the strangulation of Eric Garner, assault by NFL players, and rape on college campuses—we’ve seen front page coverage of how the protests about those events have “turned violent” with fewer investigations of what brought us to the point of protest in the first place. We can point to some excellent stories, of course, but overall, the coverage doesn’t go far enough.


The problem is, in the aggregate, news coverage of crime and violence presents distorted patterns tied to race, age, and frequency that don’t accurately portray “the big picture.” The consistent depiction of crime or criminal justice as a series of isolated events unrelated to any broader context reinforces the idea that violence is random and inevitable. Instead, research shows us violence is both predictable and preventable.

Crime reporting tends to focus on the “next” or “biggest” breaking story. Therein lies the rub: the unusual can seem normal the more it gets repeated. Whether national or local news reporting, we want reporters to follow the full context and consequences of a story, not parachute from one instance to the next.

Additionally, crime reporting tends to be primarily episodic, with very little coverage of solutions or prevention efforts that help stop violence before it starts. If journalists brought these efforts to light, then questions about how our systems and institutions respond to violence would make more sense.

Have you seen any particularly good examples of violence coverage in the media?

Yes. In early 2014, in response to pressure from advocates, the White House established a task force specifically focused on addressing the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and released its first report titled  Not Alone As a result, news media throughout the country turned their spotlights on colleges and held them there. We saw a number comprehensive stories emerge, including a front page piece by The New York Times in July, which investigated a sexual assault at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York. What struck me about this piece, and much of the new coverage about sexual assault at colleges, is the inclusion of institutional actors and broader discussion of the alleged perpetrators. The story was a high-quality, in-depth report into an institution’s systematic failure to protect its students.

The recent controversy over a similar story by Rolling Stone at the University of Virginia shouldn’t distract reporters from the need to continue to report on sexual assault or on college campuses need to act on it.

How has social media changed the way we cover, interpret or react to violence?

Despite the intoxicating reach of social media, by and large it’s still news coverage that sets the agenda for policymakers. While there’s no doubt that social media ups the ante when it comes to public expression, the reason social media could explode is because of news coverage. We are having a national conversation about violence and the NFL because there was a video recorder in an Atlantic City elevator and a news outlet that broadcasted the story first.

That said, social media is becoming a stronger influence on news choices and frames. Twitter is now a common way to reach out to reporters, while #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft and other hashtags are becoming news stories themselves as people organize around ideas they don’t see enough of in news coverage.

We know from our own research that acts of violence are usually part of an intergenerational cycle of trauma. How can we help the media broaden the lens?

In the newsroom, journalists can start by asking better questions, looking for patterns, and making stronger links between past and present. Along with asking “who, what, when, and where,” they can spend more time investigating “why” by bringing public health data to bear and asking about risk factors. Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, as an example. We know the data are clear: the higher people’s ACEs scores are, the more likely they will suffer from chronic disease and mental illness, or be victims of violence. The data is making it easier to understand an expanded definition of violence that includes childhood adversity in all its forms. If all beat reporters knew about ACEs research and the science that informs it they could tell very powerful stories that link systems and structures to health. Reporters could investigate the places that have implemented that understanding about ACEs and ask, “Could that happen in our town”?

But journalists are only half of the equation. Their sources are the other half. If we’re going to have more complete and accurate news about violence then public health and violence prevention advocates must become better sources. To do that, we have to provide solid data and concise answers, and help create news about intervention and prevention apart from specific incidents of violence.

“How important is race as a factor in the way violence is covered in America?”

It’s so important, Eric, that it could have been your first question. The evidence on this is overwhelming. In anticipation of the news from Ferguson, I looked again at Erna Smith’s analysis of news coverage after the Rodney King verdict. Her report prompted me to look at the Kerner Commission report and its assessment of news coverage after the civil disorders across the country in 1967. The fact is we have a longstanding problem we can’t turn away from. I’m willing to bet that by just saying “youth violence” I would conjure a picture of a young man of color in most Americans’ minds. Conflating youth, race and crime is hard to undo. As with violence news generally, the repetition in news coverage makes it seem normal when, in fact, most young people, most people of color, and most young people of color are not violent. The problems with reporting on violence we’ve discussed are a big part of the problem.

But the other part of the problem is that we have too few stories that illuminate the rest of the picture: what people are doing together to create communities that foster health and dismantle structural racism. A harder story to tell, perhaps, but essential if we are to create a Culture of Health.