Dear Media, Can We Quit Saying “Domestic Dispute”?

November 4th, 2013

These aren’t domestic disputes, they are about criminals attacking crime victims”    Anne Jones, Author of “Next Time She’ll Be Dead


Updated September 12, 2015


It went on to describe the case of a 30 year old man who strangled his girlfriend until she passed out several times over a two day period, and left her hospitalized with numerous internal injuries and bleeding.

Is this a “dispute?”  And is this type of headline unusual?  Not so much.  The word is still used widely, as are the equally bad terms “domestic disturbance”,  and”domestic altercation”. Even worse is “crime of passion” or my personal non- favorite “love triangle”.

I’m with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Alliance when they say this in their site’s media education literature, “A dispute is akin to a disagreement or argument; it implies equal power. Intimate partner violence, on the other hand, is a serious, cyclical pattern of abuse and unhealthy behavior meant to control an individual. Referring to such incidents as “domestic disputes” takes away from its seriousness. It also implies an isolated incident, rather than a pattern of abuse. Call it domestic violence or intimate partner violence.”   

Here’s just a sample of headlines I ran across in the past 30 days…

Alabama woman dies after being shot in apparent domestic dispute

1 Dead, 1 in Custody in Domestic Dispute: Fort Worth Police

Police confirm murder-suicide in Columbia, Illinois domestic dispute

Here’s a few from the past year…




There are hundreds, if not thousands of those headlines and leads to be found.   These are not bad people writing these stories.  My husband, a former journalist, tells me that he was trained to use the term “domestic dispute”. as are many print and broadcast journalists who could use some additional education in how we refer to the hundreds of thousands of incidents and the thousands killed each year in this country alone.  These are violent crimes and these are murders.

Consider this data from our partners at Futures Wthout Violence… On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States, nearly one in four women reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse in their lifetime, and the CDC reports that women suffer two million injuries from intimate partner per year.

Knowing that, can we move to writing and reporting about it with the harsh reality in mind?  There is a good bit of material I found today from the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance that could help.

As my friend and colleague Kit Gruelle, a subject, advocate, and special adviser to the HBO documentary “Private Violence” said to me in commenting on this story, “Using the proper terminology, even if it is difficult to do, will force us to grow up and see this violence in all it’s horror.”  Amen to that, Kit.

 Let’s  not soften these horrendous crimes by misnaming them.  Let’s call them what they are.

8 Comments on “Dear Media, Can We Quit Saying “Domestic Dispute”?”

  1. Julie Owens said at 4:37 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Thank you,Cindy. I am also disgusted by the way DV is reported so often. We need to do a better job of educating those who work in the media so that reporting does not promote myths & misconceptions and/or stereotypes. We need to call DV what it is – a CRIME, not a relationship problem.

  2. Kit gruelle said at 5:20 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Thank you, Cindy, for writing this. As an advocate who has seen what the media calls “disputes” for the last 28 years, I can tell you, from firsthand experience, these assaults do NOT qualify as disputes. They are acts of terrorism. They would violate international rules of war. When a man holds his girlfriend down and carves the word MINE in her stomach, that is an act of terrorism. When a man nail-guns his wife to the floor and then cuts her throat, that us an act of terrorism. When a man herds his daughter, her friend and her friend’s little two year old son into the back bedroom and executes them with his .357 Magnum, that is an act of terrorism. When a man holds a gun against his wife or girlfriend’s head and threatens to blow it off, that is an act of terrorism. I think many in society have gotten fed up with the watered-down language that has been used for decades to describe what goes on between an abuser and his victim. Because it happens behind closed doors, in the name of family and love, we should be even more vigilant about making sure it is accurately described and understood for precisely what it is and what it is not. It is not a dispute; it is intimate terrorism.
    Using the proper terminology, even if it is difficult to do, will force us to grow up and see this violence in all it’s horror. Hopefully, that will lead to illumination, indignation and outrage, which will then lead to activism on a local, state and national level, which will lead to a more robust and thoughtful response to this terrible private violence, and then, ultimately, to safer families and communities everywhere.

  3. cindy said at 7:12 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Amen, Kit!!!! Beautifully said!

  4. cindy said at 7:13 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Agree, Julie. I think when this North Carolina murder happened, I just got tired of seeing it. We need to acknowledge the domestic violence, while still understanding that it is indeed a murder!

  5. steve said at 7:26 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Well written and well stated!

  6. cindy said at 7:48 am on November 4th, 2013:

    Thank you, Steve.

  7. Ruth Jewell said at 4:27 pm on November 4th, 2013:

    We also need to continue to educate around child sexual is rape of the worst kind, and stop the press ,police and prosecutors from using the word “choke” in place of strangulation. Strangulation is attempted murder and needs to be spoken of in that way.We have minimized these words and actions far too long.

  8. cindy said at 9:24 pm on November 4th, 2013:

    Thank you, Ruth, of course agree. I think those actual words were in the materials provided by the Virginia alliance!

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