Strong evidence was presented that the actor, Johnny Depp assaulted his wife, Amber Heard, but as often happens in abuse cases involving influential men, the media stories are heavily tilted in favor of the likely perpetrator.
Journalists are similar to judges, lawyers, psychologists, legislators, law enforcement and many other professionals who fail to understand that there is now a specialized body of research and experts who work full time responding to domestic violence that make it far easier to understand domestic violence cases. The widespread failure to seek available knowledge and expertise leads the media to promote misinformation, stereotypes and manipulation in their stories. In fairness most of these mistakes are unintentional and based on outdated practices most of these professionals are used to relying on.
When I was an attorney, many clients told me they had no evidence to prove their partner’s abuse. I always explained that their testimony is evidence. Unfortunately we live in a society that tends to disbelieve women particularly when they complain about abuse or rape by an influential man. In reality, deliberate false reports by women occur less than two percent of the time. Imagine how different the stories and our society would be if journalists routinely included this important contextual information.
In addition to the report of Amber Heard, we have the pictures of her injuries and the supporting statement of a neighbor. All of this information is strongly probative, but media accounts focus more on non-probative information like friends and family who say how gentle he is. Experts know that abusers often present a very different side of themselves to their intimate partner then to the rest of the world. Similarly many abusers are highly successful in other parts of their lives so Depp’s professional success says nothing about the veracity of Ms. Heard’s report.
Focusing on Misinformation
Some of the stories focused on Depp’s drinking problems. This comes from the victim’s report. Domestic violence is not caused by substance abuse although this continues to be a popular misconception. Someone under the influence will not engage in behaviors they believe are wrong. Drugs and alcohol can reduce inhibitions so someone who believes there are circumstances that justify assaulting their intimate partner may commit a more severe assault under the influence. The severe assault will be more memorable which is why many people including professionals still believe alcohol causes domestic violence.
Another popular misconception concerns anger management. Abusers actually manage their anger very well. They control their anger at the start of a relationship or else there would not be a relationship. They usually don’t commit their crimes in public because there would be witnesses. People who have anger management problems might assault their boss, a bank teller or a police officer. Domestic abusers seem to limit their physical abuse to their intimate partners. This is because there is a long history of tolerance for what we now call domestic violence so abusers are correct to expect they will probably get away with their crimes. But this anger coerces their partners to do what he wants so their anger benefits them.
Some of the news stories even suggested that the fact Amber Heard did not leave sooner is proof her reports must be false. The most common question asked about domestic violence is why didn’t she leave. It is based on the assumption that she must be STUPID. After all why would a women stay with an abuser and suffer assaults and other indignities when she can leave and have a safe, happy life. My first book was called Scared to Leave Afraid to Stay because that is not the choice women partnered with abusers face. There are many good reasons that women stay including the tremendous danger when they leave. 75% of women murdered by their partners are killed after they leave. It would be much easier for reporters and the public to understand domestic violence if they assumed that women are smart and they are truthful about rape and domestic violence.
Our society would be a far better and safer place if the most common question was why would a man assault the women he claims to love more than all others. That way we would be focused on changing his behavior instead of blaming the victim. An even better question would be why does society allow men to abuse women. This question would force our leaders to focus on laws and practices that could actually prevent domestic violence. Journalists might want to ask why they are trying to write a story about domestic violence without speaking to experts or reviewing current research. These better practices would help reporters avoid the kind of mistakes we see in covering the assault by Johnny Depp on Amber Heard.
If our country starts asking the best questions, the public would learn that domestic violence is not inevitable. The Quincy Solution is a proven and evidence-based group of practices that will dramatically reduce domestic violence. It was successful in communities like Quincy, Nashville and San Diego. It would save the United States $500 billion every year mostly on health and crime costs which in turn would improve the economy and reduce government deficits. The greatest benefit are the human benefits. We could significantly reduce cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, suicide, crime and substance abuse Tens of thousands of lives would be saved every year. That is an extremely high price to pay to allow Johnny Depp and so many other famous and unknown abusers gain public sympathy and avoid meaningful consequences for their crimes.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.