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Private violence in the public eye

Can the news media change the individual behavior that results in domestic violence?Probably not on its own. But by reporting carefully on the reality of this kind of abuse, they can do a great deal to raise public awareness and build the consensus needed to give greater protection to abused women and children.

So concluded many of the participants at the conference "Domestic Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: Costs, Programs and Policies," held in October at IDB headquarters in Washington, D.C., after a day-long session on the role of the media.

The conference's first day focused on the prevalence, causes and costs of domestic violence in the region as well as issues related to the enforcement of laws, legislation, prevention and the treatment of both victims and perpetrators (see "Broadcast live from the IDB" below). But in devoting the entire second day to exploring the relationship between the media and domestic violence, conference organizers acknowledged that television, radio and the press are often the crucial element in any large-scale effort to deal with this devastating problem.

"There is a historical conspiracy of silence ," IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias said at the conference. "So talking publicly about it is extremely important, because it brings the issue to light and shakes up our societies."

Colombian first lady Jacquin Strouss de Samper, who delivered the opening address on the second day of the conference, argued that in Latin America the media represents a particularly effective means to bring exposure to the subject of domestic violence. "While in the United States and Europe people tend to mistrust the media and place greater faith in the police, the courts and the military, in Latin American, and especially in Colombia, the opposite is true: people tend to trust the media while doubting the credibility of institutions," Samper said. "This gives the media a powerful role in shaping opinion."

Journalists, television script writers, radio talk show hosts and health education experts at the conference offered vivid examples of how the media can do just that.

Rossana Fuentes, a writer with Mexico's Diario Reforma, and María del Carmen Barbosa, a screenwriter with Brazil's TV Globo network, described how soap operas have become one of the most powerful vehicles for putting women's issues onto the public agenda in Latin America. Once written almost exclusively by men, soap opera scripts are now frequently drafted by women, according to Barbosa. Brazilian soaps featuring women as lead characters garner top ratings, and numerous episodes have been devoted to issues such as domestic violence.

"Our ability to create avenues for dialogue is very powerful," said Jorge Valverde, host of "En la mira," a television talk show in Costa Rica. Valverde has devoted 32 episodes of his program to domestic violence over the last eight years, usually inviting victims to tell their story on camera. "For many women, coming to the television studio is the only way they can safely expose their abusers," said Valverde, because fear of public opprobrium is the most effective deterrent against retaliation by their abusers.

Other conference participants described legislative and judicial battles whose outcome was largely determined by media coverage. Beatriz Moreno, a Peruvian congresswoman and president of her country's Congressional Committee on Women, described how national and international media coverage in 1996 led to the repeal of laws in effect since 1924 that protected rapists from prosecution.

Dorrit Harazim, a writer with Brazilian weekly Véja, told the story of a 51-year-old woman who was raped on her way home from work. Harazim interviewed the woman and obtained her consent for Véja to publish a first person account of the rape and the victim's efforts to obtain a safe abortion when she discovered she was pregnant. The issue hit the newsstands just as Brazil's congress was set to vote on an amendment that would have extended existing prohibitions against abortion to pregnancies resulting from rape. With a circulation of 1.2 million, Véja is Latin America's most widely-read publication. Congress voted against the amendment, and several representatives cited the Véja article as a key factor in their decision.

The question of how NGOs and other interest groups can use the media to help prevent domestic abuse provoked passionate debates at the conference. Mónica Bottero, an editor at Búsqueda, a Uruguayan weekly, said NGOs often fail to understand the criteria that determine whether a news organization is willing to devote scarce editorial resources to a story. Although she is personally sympathetic to any story concerning domestic abuse, "the media are a product and we have to ensure that it sells," Bottero said. This means that a story must have a unique angle, a vivid personal testimony, or newsworthy statistics that will catch the interest of jaded readers. Bottero consequently urged NGOs to "package" information about domestic abuse in a way that will appeal to editors.

But other participants at the conference were critical of any attempt to highlight the drama in stories about abuse. Silvia Rojas, a reporter for La República, a Peruvian daily, confessed that her approach to covering domestic violence changed permanently a few years ago when she approached the head of a center for battered women and asked to speak to someone who had recently been abused. "She said she refused to help me find ‘fresh victims' just so my story would be more graphic," recalled Rojas. The incident convinced her that it is difficult to cover domestic violence without sensationalizing and demeaning the victims.

Several NGO representatives agreed with Rojas and urged the media to set aside commercial considerations and cover domestic violence in a way that respects the privacy and dignity of victims.

There are examples of such coverage, though they come at considerable cost. Jim Landers, an editor at the Dallas Morning News in Texas, U.S., described how 30 editorial and production staffers at his paper worked for almost a year on a series of 14 articles that reported on the problem of domestic violence in 12 countries. The series, which won a Pulitzer Prize (the highest recognition awarded to U.S. print media), relied heavily on information supplied by NGOs around the world. "It was a once-in-a-decade project," said Landers, "and it changed the way I view the world."

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