By now, most of America has seen the video of Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice hitting and dragging his then fiancée’s unconscious body out of an elevator. It was not until after the video was released that the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. Given the general consensus by the public that the NFL got this wrong on many levels, it would not be surprising to see the events analyzed in PR classrooms for years to come. Did media get it wrong too? When graphic videos of assaults are released, is it necessary to replay the scene over and over again on news screens everywhere? Janay Rice took to Instagram to blast the media, saying “No one knows the pain that [the] media and unwanted options [sic] from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing.”
Perhaps Janay is correct. There is no doubt the video was incredibly upsetting to the one in three women who have experienced interpersonal violence in their lifetime, but the worse part for many survivors was the media’s response. Survivors know that the question “why did she stay” often means “well, it is her fault for staying.” And they had to hear that question asked over and over on TV and radio, in the news, and online. Victim blaming by the media is not new, but thanks to social media, women are fighting back. Using the hashtag #whyIstayed, survivors were able to express their pain and share their stories. Some media outlets changed their focus and began to include survivor’s voices and advocates from the community but others continue to focus their stories in ways that hurt survivors. For example, why spend so much time focusing on the few women who went to Ravens games wearing Rice jerseys? What exactly is the message behind that angle? How is it newsworthy? Although journalism is supposed to be objective, it would behoove members of the media to step back and analyze their own intentions when making decisions about what stories they choose to tell and which ones they choose not to tell.
For now, thousands of stories are being told by abuse survivors via #whyIstayed. It is an amazing show of solidarity and support for the survivor community. This comes on the heels of the celebration of the 20 year anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Sponsored by Joe Biden and signed into law by Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, the law transformed the way we respond to violence against women in our country. The bill continues to fund prevention and interventions through the criminal justice system, family support services, and community education. However, its reauthorization was opposed in 2013 and it almost was not renewed. This would have been devastating to survivors everywhere, as shelters would have closed, offender programs would have stopped, and prevention efforts would have lost their funding. Now would be the time for the media to stop focusing on one victim and start focusing on what we can do to end interpersonal violence in our communities.
Casey Fay has a BS in Biology from Georgia Health Sciences University and an MS in Health Communication from Boston University. She is currently working on her doctoral degree in health education with a focus on violence against women. Her research interests include sexual violence and firearms as public health issues. She is an adjunct faculty member with Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, where she teaches classes on personal and community health, women’s health, violence prevention, and public health. She is also an adjunct faculty member teaching health communication to graduate students at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.