The News Media: Portraying the Victims Plight

The News Media: Portraying the Victims Plight

The News Media: Portraying the Victims Plight
The News Media: Portraying the Victims Plight

The news media deserve a great deal of credit for rediscovering victims. In the past, offenders received the lion’s share of coverage in newspapers and maga- zines and on radio and television stations. Stories delved into their backgrounds, their motives, and what should be done with them—usually how severely they should be punished. Scant attention was paid to the flesh-and-blood individuals who suf- fered because of the offender’s illegal activities.

But now those who are on the receiving end of criminal behavior are no longer invisible or forgot- ten people. Details about the injured parties are routinely included to inject some human interest into crime stories. Balanced accounts can vividly describe the victims’ plight: how they were harmed, what losses they incurred, what intense emotions distressed them, what helped or even hindered their recovery, how they were treated by care- givers, and how their cases were handled by the legal system. By remaining faithful to the facts, journalists can enable their audiences to transcend their own limited direct experiences with law- breakers and to see emergencies, tragedies, and tri- umphs through the eyes of the injured parties. Skillful reporting and insightful observations allow the public to better understand and empathize with the actions and reactions of those who suffered harm. In certain highly publicized cases, interviews by journalists have given victims a voice in how their cases ought to be resolved in court, and even how the problem (such as child snatchings by an angry ex-spouse, easy access to firearms, or collisions caused by drunk drivers) should be han- dled by the criminal justice system. Media coverage also has given these individuals with firsthand experiences a public platform to campaign for wider societal reforms (Dignan, 2005).

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However, victims—and if they perish vio- lently, their next of kin—often complain about sensationalism, a kind of coverage that has been branded as “scandal-mongering,” “pandering,” “yellow journalism,” and “tabloidism.” Newspa- pers, magazines, radio stations, and television net- works are prone to engage in sensationalism because they are profit-oriented businesses. Shock- ing stories attract readers, listeners, and viewers. Blaring headlines, gripping accounts, colorful phrases, memorable quotes, and other forms of media hype build the huge audiences that enable media enterprises to charge advertisers high rates. Producers, editors, and reporters who seek to play up the human-interest angle may exploit the plight of persons who have suffered devastating losses and debilitating wounds. Not surprisingly, the “info- tainment” shows have found that crime stories attract a lot more notice if they are spiced up with a heavy dose of sex, gore, and raw emotions. In the quest for higher ratings, market-driven coverage can sink to an “If it bleeds, it leads” rule of thumb. If reporters turn a personal tragedy into a media circus and a public spectacle, their intrusive behavior might be considered an invasion of pri- vacy. Overzealous journalists frequently are criti- cized for showing corpses lying in a pool of blood, maintaining vigils outside a grieving family’s home, or shoving microphones into the faces of bereaved, dazed, or hysterical relatives at funerals. The injured party receives unwanted publicity and experiences a loss of control as others comment upon, draw lessons from, and impose judgments on what he or she allegedly did, or did not do, or should have done.

Incidents receive intensive and sustained cover- age only when some aspect of the victim–offender relationship stands out as an attention-grabber: The act, the perpetrator, or the target must be unusual, unexpected, strange, or perverse. Suffering harm in ways that are typical, commonplace, or predictable is just not newsworthy. Editors and journalists sift through an overwhelming number of real-life trag- edies that come to their attention (largely through contacts within the local police department) and

select the cases that are most likely to seize center stage, go viral, shock people out of their compla- cency, and either stir up deep-seated fears or arouse the public’s empathy and social conscience.

The stories that are featured strike a responsive chord in audiences because the incidents symbolize some significant theme—for example, that anyone can be chosen at random, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time; that complete strangers cannot be trusted; and that bystanders might not come to a person’s aid, especially in anonymous, big-city settings (Roberts, 1989). His- torically, heinous crimes that have received the most press coverage have had one or more of these elements in common: Either the injured party or the defendant is a child, woman, or a prominent or wealthy person; intimations of “pro- miscuous” behavior by the victim or defendant help explain the event; some doubts linger about the guilt of the convict; and the circumstances sur- rounding a slaying seemed unusual (Stephens, 1988; and Buckler and Travis, 2005).

Furthermore, media attention may reflect the unconscious biases of talk show hosts, correspon- dents, and editors who work in the newsroom. For example, members of minority communities have charged that national news outlets, especially those on cable TV, focus relentless attention on the disappearance of attractive white people, particu- larly young women and children, but overlook equally compelling cases involving individuals who do not share these characteristics (see Lyman, 2005; Memmott, 2005; and Barton, 2011).

Hence, it is predictable that the unsolved Christmas Eve murder of a six-year-old beauty contest winner in her own upscale home, with her parents and brother upstairs, would be the sub- ject of incessant tabloid sensationalism (Johnson, 2008). Similarly, the disappearance of a 24- year-old intern after jogging in a park set off an avalanche of lurid speculation when it was revealed that she was having an affair with a married con- gressman (the case was solved years later when her killer turned out to be a complete stranger who had attacked other women in that same park at about


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the same time) (Tavernise, 2011). If these charges are true, the problem may go deeper and may reflect the shortcomings of market-driven journal- ism. The gatekeepers, under organizational pres- sures to sell their product, sift through a huge pool of items and select stories they perceive will resonate with the general public, at the expense of presenting an accurate sampling of the full range of tragedies taking place locally, nationally, and around the world (see Buckler and Travis, 2005).

And yet, it can be argued that media coverage of crime stories is an absolute necessity in an open society. Reporters and news editors have a consti- tutional right, derived from the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press, to present information about lawbreaking without interference from the government. Illegal activities not only harm partic- ular individuals but also pose a threat to those who may be next. People have a right as well as a need to know about the emergence of dangerous condi- tions and ominous developments, and the media has an obligation to communicate this information accurately.

The problem is that the public’s right to know about crime and the media’s right to report these incidents clash with the victim’s right to privacy. Journalists, editors, and victims’ advocates are addressing questions of fairness and ethics in a wide variety of forums, ranging from blogs and posted comments on the Web and letters to the editor in newspapers, to professional conferences and lawsuits in civil court.

Several remedies have been proposed to curb abusive coverage of a victim’s plight. One approach would be to enact new laws to shield those who suffer from needless public exposure, such as an unnecessary disclosure of names and addresses in dispatches or on websites. An alternative approach would be to rely on the self-restraint of reporters and their editors. The fact that most news accounts of sexual molestations of children and of rapes no longer reveal the names of those who were harmed is an example of this self-policing approach in action. A third remedy would be for the media to adopt a code of professional ethics. Journalists who

abide by the code would “read victims their rights” at the outset of interviews, just as police officers read suspects their Miranda rights when taking them into custody (see Thomason and Babbilli, 1987; and Karmen, 1989).

Victimologists could play an important role in monitoring progress by studying how accurate widely broadcast initial accounts are; how fre- quently and how seriously reporters insult and defame the subjects of their stories; and how suc- cessfully the different reform strategies prevent this kind of exploitation, or at least minimize any abu- sive invasions of privacy (see Duwe, 2000).

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