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A Letter to the Washington Post Executive Editor by the National Coalition for Men, DC Chapter

NATIONAL COALITION FOR MEN,
DC CHAPTER
P.O. Box 1404
Rockville, Maryland 20849
301-670-1964

December 24, 2004

Leonard Downie, Jr.
Executive Editor
The Washington Post 1150 15th Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20071

Dear Mr. Downie:

I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition for Men – DC Chapter to express our numerous concerns with the Washington Post's recent series on Maternal Homicide. The series, written by Donna St. George and others, consists of three main articles:

December 19: “Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths”

December 20: “Violence Intersects Lives of Promise”

December 21: “Mending Shattered Childhoods”

Before sharing our concerns, I will mention that others have expressed serious reservations about this series:

  1. Jack Shafer, Slate editor-in-chief: THE MUDDLED MATERNAL MURDER SERIES LOSES ITS WAY
  2. Richard Davis, vice president of Family Non-Violence Inc.: EXPECTANT MOTHERS' REAL RISK OF VIOLENCE
  3. Mike LaSalle, MensNewsDaily.com editor: WOMAN STRANGLES EXPECTANT MOTHER, CUTS OUT BABY – ANDY ROONEY UNAVAILABLE FOR COMMENT

The Maternal Homicide series contains many serious flaws, both of a journalistic and social nature:

DOES NOT REPRESENT GOOD JOURNALISM

On nine counts, the Maternal Homicide series does not measure up to accepted standards of good journalistic practice:

1. Gives a Distorted Picture

Research shows that women are just as likely as men to instigate domestic violence (DV).

Law professor Linda Kelly reviewed the domestic violence research in the Florida State University Law Review and concluded, "leading sociologists have repeatedly found that men and women commit violence at similar rates."

And psychologist John Archer reviewed 522 articles and concluded, “Women were slightly more likely than men to use one or more act of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently.” (Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 126, No. 5, 2000)

But the Washington Post series never acknowledges that domestic violence is a problem that affects men and women alike.

2. Does Not Include Relevant Context

The series focuses on 207 expectant or new mothers who were killed each year by their boyfriends or husbands. While tragic, the series does not mention that there were 4,022,000 -- over four million -- births in the United States in 2002.

While the articles foster the impression that maternal homicide is widespread, statistics reveal the exact opposite: only five one-thousandths of 1% of expectant or new mothers – that is, 0.005% – are victims of fatal domestic violence.

3. Ignores Conflicting Information

The series states most maternal homicides arise from domestic violence. To support that thesis, Donna St. George did an in-depth review of only 72 cases. On the basis of that review, she concludes that "nearly 30 percent" of them were not due to domestic violence.

St. George's “nearly 30 percent” figure is very different from the large Massachusetts study that she cites. In Massachusetts, 62% of maternal homicides were not related to DV. The large discrepancy between “nearly 30 percent” and 62% seriously undermines the thesis of the articles.

Clearly the reporter's 72 cases do not consist of a representative sample, and therefore cannot provide the basis for drawing generalizations.

4. Contains Factual Errors

The “Researchers Stunned by Scope of Slayings” article states, “In 2002, Massachusetts weighed in with a study that also showed homicide as the top cause of maternal death, followed by cancer.”

That statement is incorrect. For White non-Hispanic women, the Massachusetts study found that motor vehicle accidents, not homicides, were the number one cause of injury-related death.

5. Imposes Agreement When No Agreement Exists

The Sunday article states, “many experts have come to agree that 4 percent to 8 percent of pregnant women – 160,000 to 320,000 a year – are physically hurt by husbands, boyfriends or partners.”

That statement is self-evidently false. A two-fold difference in the range of 160,000 to 320,000 DV cases a year does not represent anything that resembles “agreement.” And given the controversies in this field, why doesn't St. George provide the reader with the names of her “experts”?

6. Relies on Innuendo

Sunday's article includes statements suggesting the problem may be far worse, but provides no factual basis for that implication: “The Unknown Toll,” “few could be sure they knew of all or even most cases,” etc.

7. Uses Emotion-Laden Headlines

“Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths,” “Researchers Stunned by Scope of Slayings,” and “Mending Shattered Childhoods” are the type of headlines one would expect to find in a supermarket tabloid, not in the Washington Post.

8. Provides Very Little News

The real “news” of the series can be summarized in a single sentence: Each year 295 new or expectant mothers die from homicides, and possibly 70% of these deaths are caused by boyfriends or husbands.

That finding deserves a single 1,000-word article, not the front-page recounting of tragic anecdotes that the series becomes fixated upon.

9. Represents “Red-Meat” Journalism

Fatal domestic violence against mothers is a highly emotional issue that deserves objective and balanced journalistic treatment. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the Maternal Homicide series.

DOES A DISSERVICE TO YOUR READERS

In addition to the above-listed journalistic flaws, the series does a disservice to the Washington Post readers:

1. Leaves the Reader with the Wrong Conclusion

By failing to mention that there are over four million births each year, the series implies that DV-related maternal deaths are commonplace. That is an ostensibly false conclusion.

2. Promotes a Form of “Rape Hysteria”

The series becomes overwhelmed with tragic anecdotes. Women are always depicted as victims, and men are portrayed as perpetrators. The parallels between this series and newspaper articles in the southern United States in the 1920s that promoted “rape hysteria” are disturbing indeed.

3. Ignores Abusive Women Who Need Help

Women who initiate domestic violence need help. By ignoring those women, society never focuses on assuring they can receive the counseling and therapy they need.

In summary, the Washington Post's Maternal Homicide series, in both the journalistic and social senses, is grossly deficient. Whether intended or not, its effect is to stereotype and vilify men.

ACTIONS TO TAKE

Domestic violence is an important social issue, and it deserves balanced treatment by the Washington Post. Therefore we are requesting that you promptly implement the three following actions:

  1. Schedule an educational session for your reporters and editors, to be presented by one or more of our Chapter members, on the scope, nature, and trends of domestic violence, based on the findings of scientific research.
  2. Research and run a three-part series that features domestic violence against men. The series should address the following topics: research findings, how male victims are often ignored by DV programs and services, and what male vctims can do to protect themselves and get help.
  3. In all future DV articles, the Washington Post should assure that your reporters and editors provide a balanced and fair perspective.

In closing, I know that you are dedicated to the highest ideals of journalistic practice, and strive to assure that the Post reflects the best standards of objectivity and fairness. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,
The National Coalition for Men, DC Chapter