I got a phone call from an angry woman this morning saying that I should be beaten. This is unusual for Saturday mornings and I didn’t quite understand her anger until I read the San Francisco Chronicle story with this punchline:
So when Coombs asks, “How many cases are enough to justify” the database, I have a simple answer.
I have to admit, I was sad to see this (mis)quote at the end of the story. I felt like I was set up. I do hundreds of interviews and I’ve never contacted a writer about being misquoted or having a controversial quote included in a story. In fact, I’ve had much more controversial lines written about me but the difference here is that in most cases a writer will make it clear (intentionally or not) when they are looking for a fall-guy.
So why did this case bother me so much? Because it proved the counter-point to a truism I have repeated time and time again when doing media training: “The media doesn’t seek to misquote you, but they get their context from you.” This story proved that sometimes, no matter how much context you give, journalists (columnists in particular) will remain rooted in their chosen understanding of the schemes which you are trying to clarify.
In this particular case, the C.W. Nevius told me up front that he had a close acquaintance who had just gotten out of a violent relationship and that it was a “particularly raw subject” for he and his colleagues. I spent a good part of the morning working with this writer to explain the legislative history of that particular bill (in fact, he didn’t even know of the bill until I told him about it) as well as the various reasons that people supported and opposed the bill. I gave him the contact information for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence (CPEDV) who had been vocally opposed to the bill and had some very important concerns, not the least of which was that it would be easy for DV victims to end up on the registry for self-defense and would therefore have to publicly register their address for life, rendering them a target to previous abusers (bill analysis with the formal support / opposition at the bottom). Nevius chose not to include a quote from them or many of the other complexities behind why this piece of legislation might have unintended consequences that must be considered.
I share Nevius’s belief that one victim is one too many. That’s precisely why expressed the concern that our decisions must weigh the likelihood of exacerbating the problem. In fact, we have lessons to be learned from the sex offender registry that sometimes unintended consequences include false sense of security when an individual does not show up on the registry, a reduction in reporting/convictions of perpetrators known to the victim and other complex outcomes that we cannot account for. So when I said “How many cases are enough to justify…” the rest of the statement that Nevius failed to print was “…the potential for creating new victims as a result of the database.”
The point that is all-too-often missed was that half-baked solutions to complex problems often end up shifting the problem. Can we justify policy that would prevent one person’s victimization but be a contributing factor in someone else’s? These are the difficult questions that victim advocates wrestle with in policy work. Unfortunately, it is the combination of partisan posturing in the legislature coupled with our fear of this type of misrepresentation in the media that make it difficult to have an honest debate about these issues.
Luckily, the overwhelming majority of my experiences with the media are straightforward, honest and fair. For now, I’m choosing to believe that C.W. Nevius did not seek to misquote me, but rather my influence on the story was underwhelming in contrast to his personal connection to domestic violence. If that is true, then it is incumbent upon us to continue working with the media (and policy-makers) to help provide context that promotes comprehensive approaches to prevention, not quick fixes with bad outcomes.