Tracing Proliferation of False Claims about Domestic Violence

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False claims like “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women” increased sharply in the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. No such claims were found in a broad search of U.S. Congressional documents, law journals, and newspapers published in 1985 and 1986. In 1987, that search found 3. The count rose from 17 in 1989 to 115 in 1993. Within the corpus of searched texts, claims that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women and closely related variants peaked at 188 in 1994. That was the year that Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J. Simpson‘s wife, were murdered. O.J. Simpson was charged with both murders. The O.J. Simpson case provided a prominent opportunity to sensationalize domestic violence against women.

While the O.J. case supported sensationalization of domestic violence against women, the claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women had considerable public significance prior to the O.J. case. A variant of that claim appeared in the U.S. national news weekly Time in 1983. The Surgeon General in 1984 reportedly made such a claim. Additional instances of the claim appear in specialized studies published in the 1980s. In 1992, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association published a Surgeon General’s statement on domestic violence. That statement seems to have been the key event in proliferating the false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women.

"Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women"

Instances, with variants, in Congressional documents, law reviews, and newspapers
yeartotalleading causelargest causegreatest cause
Note: The above figures are from well-defined corpuses of relevant documents. They provide a lower bound on the number of such claims actually published. The newspaper claim count does not include all US newspapers and is probably biased toward greater coverage after the mid-2000s. The above counts exclude court cases, where citing opportunities are case-dependent, and web documents, which aren't easily categorized by year of posting. The underlying data, including the specific text and context of the claims, are available in the Domestic Violence Claims Dataset.
19850000
19860000
19873120
19885023
1989173113
19903412193
19917025441
19928764185
1993115752515
1994188153269
1995101721415
19968969191
19978770107
19985842133
19996146105
2000594955
2001614876
2002282530
20034326152
2004392685
2005373070
2006373052
2007403631
2008231580
2009272322
2010232102
2011201901

The Surgeon General’s 1992 statement on domestic violence included distinctive phrases that help to trace its influence on false claims about domestic violence. The Surgeon General in 1992 was Antonia C. Novello. Here’s the focal text from the Surgeon General’s statement:

One study found violence to be the second leading cause of injuries to women, and the leading cause of injuries to women ages 15 through 44 years

References to this statement have nearly uniformly dropped the reference to “one {unrepresentative} study.” References to this statement have also nearly uniformly replaced “violence” with “domestic violence” or a related term such as “spouse abuse,” “battering,” or “intimate partner violence.” Within that family of variants, the text has distinctive symbolic markers: the phrase “leading cause” and the age specification “ages 15 through 44 years.” These markers help to identify the influence of the Surgeon General’s 1992 statement.

In 1984, the Surgeon General reportedly made a formally distinguishable statement about domestic violence against women. The Surgeon General in 1984 was C. Everett Koop. The U.S. Congressional Record from 1988 to 1993 contains at least seven statements similar to the following example from the Congressional Record in 1988:

In 1984, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop reported that domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury to women in the United States.

Primary-source evidence for this Surgeon General’s statement apparently doesn’t exist. In any case, this statement doesn’t shield the Surgeon General behind the the findings of “one study.” The statement also explicitly refers to domestic violence, uses the phrase “largest cause,” and contains no qualification as to women’s ages. Some substitution between the phrases “leading cause” and “largest cause” probably occurs in paraphrasing references. The age qualification in the Surgeon General’s 1992 statement, although highly relevant quantitatively, is often dropped. Nonetheless, the relative frequency of references to “leading cause” and “largest cause,” and the relative frequency of the age specification “ages 15 to 44,” help to distinguish the communicative influence of the Surgeon General’s 1984 and 1992 statements.

The Surgeon General’s 1992 statement contributed significantly to false claims that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. Before 1992, such claims favored the phrase “largest cause.” After 1992, the phrase “leading cause” was by far the most common. Moreover, for the sample of claims recorded in the Domestic Violence Claims Dataset (DVCD) from 1996 to 2005, the phrase “leading cause” was associated with an age specification split roughly evenly between “women ages 15 to 44” and “women” in general. Claims referring to “largest cause”, in contrast, referred to women in general six times as frequently as referring to “women ages 15 to 44.” Claims that domestic violence is the leading/largest/greatest cause of injury to women were increasing prior to the Surgeon General’s 1992 statement on domestic violence. The Surgeon General’s 1992 statement is associated not just with continuing increase in these claims, but also with an increase in the relative frequency of the symbolic markers “leading cause” and “ages 15 to 44.”

The false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women has persisted with a high public profile for more than two decades. In 1994, a journalist published a newspaper article documenting that domestic violence is far from the leading cause of injury to women. A relatively small number of such debunking articles appeared in newspapers, law journals, and on the web from 1996 to 2007. In contrast, from 1998 to 2007, a fairly steady 46 documents per year within a searched corpus of Congressional documents, law journal publications, and newspaper articles asserted variants of the claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. From 2008 to 2011, the number of such claims within the searched corpus fell to about 23 per year. While that decline might indicate some working of public reason, the overall performance of public reason has been poor. Since the mid-1990s, sufficient information has been readily available to make clear to any person engaged in reasonable truth-seeking that domestic violence is far from the leading cause of injury to women.

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