The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the nation in unprecedented ways. One of the nation’s affected groups are victims of domestic and sexual violence. Tennessee has the fifth-highest rate of women killed by intimate partners in the U.S. It's now even more dangerous for victims as stress and unemployment—leading contributors to domestic violence and sexual assault—rise exponentially in the pandemic.
Natasha Senjanovic, an award-winning reporter and former news anchor, reported on the rise of domestic violence in Tennessee during the pandemic. Her Pulitzer Center-supported project, Surging in Silence: Domestic and Sexual Violence in the Pandemic, reports on domestic abuse, sexual assault, the criminal justice system’s overwhelming amount of cases, assault centers, survivors, and offenders. Senjanovic’s in-depth reporting takes readers deep into the unfortunate reality of what is happening behind closed doors in the midst of a national crisis.
“At the Pulitzer Center, we've spent much of the past year trying to support journalism that sheds light on all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, we were interested when Natasha came to us with a story about a pandemic within the pandemic—the story of how unemployment and economic stress related to the COVID pandemic became a leading driver of domestic violence and sexual assault," said Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley. “Reporting from Tennessee, Natasha delivered a series of sensitive and nuanced stories on an important topic that was not getting the attention it deserved.”
To learn more about the project, journalistic practices, and the process behind her reporting, Pulitzer Center Intern Shana Joseph spoke with Senjanovic. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Shana Joseph: What inspired you to cover domestic violence in the pandemic? Why Nashville?
Natasha Senjanovic: First of all, I am based in Nashville. I used to be the All Things Considered host here at National Public Radio. My background is not in reporting on these subjects. But while I was at National Public Radio, I started covering them more and more. I became more interested in them. Once the pandemic hit, I understood how the pressures and the stresses were going to create terrifying situations. Stress makes violent people even more violent. Unemployment is one of the most lethal red flags in domestic violence cases. So I understood that we had this pressure-cooker situation, where violent people were going to be exacerbated, and then victims were stuck at home.
This is an overlooked issue. It is both domestic and sexual violence that are overlooked and unreported. They are underreported in the sense of reporting by the media and also underreported by victims. Domestic violence is a broad umbrella. It can be against children, against the elderly, against your partner, etc. People ask me why I want to do these subjects in particular. Regardless of the pandemic, my short answer has become this: to help shift the question from “Why didn't he or she leave?” to “Why did somebody torment their partner to begin with?”
SJ: How were you able to get both victims and domestic abusers to speak to you about their experiences?
NS: There was a big challenge in getting people to speak with me and I understand that. But, I have a lot of respect. I’m also aware that these are people who are working through having been subjected to somebody else's power and control. They may even want to please me with their responses. As a journalist, I have a lot of power in situations like this. I'm very, very, very conscious of that every time I sit down and speak with somebody. There's no reason for them to trust me off the bat; I haven't earned that trust. I have to earn that respect. I feel like I am respectful, but people have different things that they can talk about more easily than others. If someone is not willing to talk, they are free to just not answer any question.
SJ: The project begins with you reporting on statistics of domestic violence then shifts into covering abusers and the help they are receiving. Was this deliberate? Was this an angle you felt needed exploration?
NS: I'm actually trying to move away from talking to victims in the reporting. Reporting with victims in the story could re-traumatize them. I know that one way people understand the subject is to hear from somebody who experienced it firsthand. But I feel like what I would like to do with my reporting is to show that we are all complicit in a way so that we all start taking these seriously as crimes and understand them as crimes.
I have this friend who is the interim executive director of a campaign against sexual violence. She and I were talking about how to get more and more offender stories out there. It's easy to judge offenders. We say all the time that violence begets violence but we don't actually follow through on teaching people what that means. Somebody was taught this. They're repeating the only thing that they know. So I need to try and understand everybody in this situation. It doesn't mean that I’m only going to write pieces about how we shouldn't judge offenders. I could write a piece about not judging offenders but it doesn't mean that you don't hold somebody accountable.
SJ: As a journalist covering such an emotional topic, has it ever been difficult to hear their stories?
NS: Yes. Sometimes my heart breaks. I mean, often it does for these people. I also think being a reporter gives you certain objectivity in your world. It's sort of an objectivity towards life. But it's been very challenging. The subject matter is difficult and in the middle of a pandemic, it is even harder. There have been days when I’ve just had to take a break and say to myself, “No interviews today and no writing.” There were days where I chose to work on a puzzle, watch television, or take a walk so I could step away for a moment.
SJ: If there was one takeaway you’d want readers to remember from your project, what would it be?
NS: People need to remember that this is a social issue. I would want people to realize that they understand these issues better than they think. They just have to reframe how they understand these issues. When people ask the question, “Why didn't she leave?” I have this response, “Why would you complain about your job for five years and never leave?”
It takes strength to be strong. It takes strength to make a decision to change your life. Making a change is hard and it is scary when you don't know where you're going to land. Now imagine if somebody has been telling you for a year or over 20 years that you were horrible at your job and that nobody will ever hire you. Imagine if you know that if you change your job your kids might get taken away from you. Imagine if you change your job then somebody might start stalking you to try and kill you. So I try and explain this to people. Put yourself in a situation that is similar.
The reason leaving a relationship is so difficult is because you're taking power away from somebody who wants it. The most dangerous time for victims is the two years after they leave a relationship. That is when it actually can become infinitely more dangerous than it already is.
SJ: How has this project changed you?
NS: This has made me a better reporter. It has taught me so much. Every time a door or a window opens on an issue, there's like another 10 that I learned along with it. And, each time it helps me reframe the conversation. Domestic violence is not a racial problem. It is not a socio-economic problem. Domestic violence affects people across the board.
COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools, and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.