Disputing “Dispute”: Troubling Patterns in Domestic Violence Rhetoric

The way a domestic violence case is handled and addressed by law enforcement, the legal system, and the media often only exacerbates the original problem of the crime itself. A prime example of this trend is the way word choice on the part of journalists (and legal officials) can distort public perception of DV cases. Take, for example, the common phrase “domestic dispute.”

A particularly egregious recent article, by a local news team in Chapel Hill, NC, features the headline “Domestic dispute prompts shooting outside elementary school.” Since the woman who was shot took part in the “dispute,” the syntax of the headline actually implicates her as a cause of her own murder. Subtly, implicitly, the headline commits the grave error of victim blaming, as does a later note that the man and woman “were involved in a domestic dispute.” (Another recent article, “Southfield father convicted of choking wife to death sentenced,” similarly notes that “a verbal fight turned physical” and that the wife, as if she had some sort of control, “stopped breathing and died.”) What would have been wrong with a headline like “Local woman shot and killed by acquaintance outside elementary school”? Maybe that would have kept the writers from presenting the nearby schoolchildren as the true victims of the situation, which seems, consciously or not, to have been their aim: the article glosses over the woman’s death, and life, before moving on to a much longer section about the lockdown procedures of the school; nowhere is there any mention of domestic violence or abuse.

When used in news reports and legal arguments, words and phrases like “domestic dispute” have the disastrous effect of misrepresenting the power dynamics in abusive situations and trivializing what would in other contexts be referred to as violent crimes. If a phrase can accurately describe something as innocuous as Melissa Etheridge’s financial wrangling with her former partner, surely it shouldn’t be used to whitewash the iniquities and horrors of domestic violence. (Of course, the fact that “domestic dispute” is clearly problematic may well indicate that “domestic violence” itself is problematic as well.)

These distinctions aren’t about trying to be politically correct. In the vast majority of domestic violence cases where phrases such as “domestic dispute,” or “marital spat,” or “escalating argument,” or “fight that turned physical” are used, they are simply inaccurate. This is a matter not of political but of factual correctness–a correctness that the media has to start caring about, if cultural understandings of domestic violence are going to change.