The Tabloids' Domestic Violence Windfall

Britney Spears' alleged altercation with beau Jason Trawick is the latest in a string of newsstand hits, from a Teen Mom to Mel Gibson. But Rebecca Dana reports the coverage is a mixed bag for organizations fighting domestic abuse.

12.05.10 11:59 PM ET

Of all the categories of “train wreck” splashed across tabloid media these days—bitter divorce battles, cocktail-waitress liaisons, any day in the life of Lindsay Lohan—easily the nastiest is the celebrity domestic-violence rap.

“A Fight… and a Beating!,” said Radar Online of the latest alleged misfortune to befall Britney Spears, pictured on the cover of the latest Star magazine with what may or may not have been a black eye.

Her supposed altercation with boyfriend Jason Trawick, supposedly occurring while pregnant with his child, follows a string of other, similar incidents. In November alone, New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith was accused of assaulting his wife a week after MTV “Teen Mom” Amber Portwood allegedly beat up her Teen Dad. And these, of course, follow the long Summer of Mel. For the supermarket and Internet tabloids, it’s been a bonanza.

“We’ve done extremely well on the newsstand,” said Star Editor in Chief Candace Trunzo.

For organizations like Safe Horizon that aim to fight domestic violence and give support to its victims, the growing prevalence of these stories is a mixed bag. Every time Charlie Sheen picks up a knife, there’s the hope that his story will bring much-needed awareness but also the fear that, for the crime’s increasing ubiquity, it will become less shocking: just another reason rich people go to rehab.

On the one hand, reports of domestic violence skyrocket when a celebrity incident occurs—more young people call in to hotlines, more schools and community centers request experts to come in and speak. It also helps to dispel the myth that domestic violence is limited to minority and lower-income families. If Diane Lane is calling the police on Josh Brolin, it could happen to anyone.

On the other hand, the substance and tone of the coverage can make advocates squirm—the prurient, reality-show circus quality of some reports; the uncomfortable denials, as Spears issued last week; the judgment heaped on a victim if she or he (though mostly she) doesn’t immediately leave.

“Of course, we don’t like to see the stories handled in a way that’s careless toward the victims and that treats it as entertainment,” said Michelle Vigeant, chief of staff at Safe Horizon.

Gallery: Celebrity Domestic Abuse Cases

The 10 Highest-Earning Reality StarsThe fact that the victims aren’t always the most likable people ( ahem) and don’t always seem to make the best choices is not necessarily a problem.

“Anyone can be a perpetrator and anyone can be a victim of domestic violence,” said Rona Solomon, deputy director at the Center Against Domestic Violence. “That means that some people who are harmed in a relationship are not very nice people. But no one deserves to be harmed. Everyone deserves to be safe in their home. Certainly you deserve to be safe with the people who say that they love you.”

Solomon tells the story of a young woman, a doctor, who only recognized that she had been in an abusive relationship for years when she saw an actress speaking about her own abuse on Telemundo.

There have always been instances of ugliness and violence in celebrity couples, some well-known, as in the cases of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown and Ike and Tina Turner. The first truly huge domestic-violence story of the modern era was O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, which made spousal abuse the biggest news of the year. But these kinds of stories didn’t become a mainstay of tabloid blogs and magazines until 2008, when Chris Brown brutally beat Rihanna, and photos of the injuries leaked to the press. The scandal was one of the bestselling covers for most tabloids that year.

Domestic-violence stories have turned up reliably ever since, accompanied by gruesome police reports, third-hand retellings, and occasionally, when the getting’s good, a picture or two of the bruised and bloodied starlet herself.

Despite Spears’ denial that she was abused and questions about the veracity of audiotapes allegedly featuring her discussing the incident, Trunzo said her reporters are actively pursuing the story, with “a band of lawyers who are watching our every move.” They’re focused on the “bad guy” now, aiming to ferret out more information about Spears’ boyfriend.

Domestic-violence stories resonate with readers because so many have lives touched by it, Trunzo said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we’re a social conscience publication. We’re not. But when we can inform and do some good, I’m happy.”

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.