If you’re on Twitter, you may have noticed that we are on a mission. Each day, we tweet at various news organizations who use the term “domestic dispute” to describe various acts of violence. We have engaged with several media outlets, and been ignored by many — but we keep plugging away, news story by news story, to raise awareness and to perhaps shed some light on why we find this phrase so offensive.
“Domestic dispute” is used by the media as a descriptor for any number of crimes — anything from stalking to assault to property destruction to murder. We believe that labeling an act of violence a “dispute” minimizes the true harm of the crime in a way that is done with no other type of crime. If a man is beaten by a complete stranger, it isn’t labeled a dispute — it’s an assault. If a woman is harassed by someone she has never met, it isn’t a dispute — it’s stalking or harassment. If a child is threatened with a gun by a stranger, it isn’t a dispute — it’s assault. So why are these same crimes described as “disputes” when the victim and perpetrator have a romantic or familial relationship?
The word dispute has certain connotations; it’s typically used to describe a nonviolent argument or disagreement. The examples used by online dictionaries are instructive:
1. You can dispute your bill if you believe it is inaccurate.
2. These estimates are hotly disputed by scientists.
3. No one ever disputed that it was the right decision.
4. The source of the text has been disputed for centuries.
Not a single one of these examples involves an act of violence. No one suffers a broken bone or stab wound when a bill is disputed, or when scientists dispute estimates. But when a news item or police blotter calls something a “dispute,” it almost always means that someone or something was hurt. For example, in February, a Virginia man killed his wife, his son, his mother-in-law and injured his father-in-law before shooting and killing himself. Four people died, and one was seriously injured. How did local news outlets describe this killing spree? As a domestic dispute. And this is why we find this term so offensive — a word meant to describe a nonviolent disagreement is being used to describe incredibly violent crimes. It downplays the violence and puts domestic violence into a separate category from other violent crimes.
Clearly, there is some value in describing a given crime as domestic in nature, to differentiate it from a random attack or other type of crime. Our issue is not with that word, but with using “dispute” to replace the word that actually describes the crime committed. The incident described above is clearly domestic murder and domestic assault. If you’re a reporter, why not use the more accurate word that is specific to the crime committed? Why rely on a shorthand phrase that minimizes the violence? This term is used in the vast majority of news articles to describe any type of domestic violence crime. For this reason, we are committed to calling out news organizations for their use of the phrase, and we ask you to join us. Search for #notadispute on Twitter, follow Blackburn Center on Twitter, or comment on the Facebook pages of news outlets when they publish stories using this terminology.
With your help, we can help to change the way that crimes of domestic violence are reported!