Celebrity lives are central to much social media. All aspects of the lives of celebrities including the good, the bad, and the ugly are on display. And there are patterns. Race, gender, and privilege are part of the cultural logic that sneaks into the coverage. Recently Joanna R. Pepin highlighted this in an examination of domestic violence coverage. Joanna Pepin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland who studies romantic relationships and inequality.
In a recent paper, Pepin analyzed a sample of 330 news articles from between 2009 and 2012 that were written about 66 celebrity men. Forty-seven were black and 29 were white. She limited her sample to include only news articles about men because of the much greater frequency and severity of men’s violence against their partner. She also restricted her sample to only include black and white men because other races were not represented with sufficient frequency for the period she was studying. Lastly, she limited her search to include only professional actors, musicians, and professional sports players, thus excluding reality television stars, and college athletes. She used a sample of articles that were published online and that were within six months of the report of domestic violence.
Pepin wondered if there were systemic patterns in intimate partner violence reporting by the media related to white and male privilege, and that is exactly what she found. Men’s violent incidents tended to be portrayed in such a way that minimizes the responsibility of the man and excuses them for their behavior in general. However, black men were more often depicted as criminals while articles about white men contained more excuses or justifications for their actions. She derived three important observations about male privilege, and two other key points about white privilege.
Male Privilege: Minimizing the seriousness
Pepin reported that more than 50 percent of the articles minimized the seriousness of the domestic violence. For example, when male celebrities’ domestic violence was discussed it was often done so in a way that used softer language, such as by saying argument, dispute, altercation, or incident. This leads the reader to believe that the violence was simply a bad argument, or a common disagreement between a couple. The news coverage instead profiled men in a way that highlighted their successes, as well as being framed as a good guy.
Male Privilege: Underreport of sanctions
Pepin looked at underreporting of sanctions; that is, did the articles talk about the impact that the violence had on his job, the accountability of the celebrity, and the legal consequences? She found that only 8 percent of the articles included information about how the celebrities’ actions impacted their work, only 4 percent included statements from the journalist about how the action of the celebrity was unacceptable, and only 7 percent of the total articles mentioned legal consequences.
Male Privilege: Misplaced responsibility
Pepin defined misplaced responsibility as when the victim is described as being responsible, or deserving of the abuse. Misplaced responsibility was in evidence when the journalist interviewed the abuser and their representatives instead of interviewing advocates of the victim, law enforcement officials, or scholars. She mentions that the second most cited source in these articles was the abuser. Overall, she found that misplaced responsibility was apparent in 24 percent of the articles and that 13 percent focused the incident on the victim and blamed her for the abuse.
White Privilege: Criminal Framing
According to Pepin, the abuser was framed as a criminal in two-thirds of the articles that were about black celebrities, but only in about one-third of the articles that were about white celebrities. The articles about black celebrities were also two times more likely to include arrest information, three times more likely to talk about the charges, and two and a half time more likely to reference legal documents or law enforcement officials, than articles about white celebrities.
White Privilege: Excuses and justifications
Articles about white celebrities were also more likely to include excuses or justifications for their actions. Results revealed articles were framed in a justifying manner two and a half times more often in the articles about white abusers. She also found that the abuse was framed as a mutual argument—a feature of minimizing the seriousness—in 55 percent of the articles about white celebrities, and 34 percent of the articles about black celebrities.
Celebrity stories are accessible because of, well, because of celebrity. But intimate partner violence is something that happens frequently all over the world. Understanding patterns in privilege and racial disparities can help us change the way we talk about and view intimate partner violence.