Victim Media Advocacy:
How to Facilitate Sensitive and Respectful Treatment of Crime Victims
b. The Stigma of Victimization
d. Language and Content
e. Inappropriate Timing
f. Aggressive or Intrusive Reporting
g. Ignoring Victim Wishes
h. Explicit Visuals
i. Inaccurate Reporting
Major Concerns of Coverage
Decades of reporting on crime and victimization have identified key concerns that crime victims often have about how the process affects them. Victimization often places victims on what has been described as “an emotional roller coaster” or “an ocean of emotions.” The fluctuating nature of one’s response to trauma results in good days and bad days. It can be helpful and validating at one moment for a victim to speak to the media, and emotionally devastating and distressing shortly thereafter.
Crime victims’ concerns about news media coverage offer a great starting point for mutual education and ongoing discussions among victim service providers, allied justice professionals, and the news media. When reporters are aware of these concerns, it can begin a productive dialogue in which journalists can also raise their own issues and concerns. Victim service providers can clearly state victims’ key concerns in their ongoing interactions with journalists. The goal for all parties is to promote sensitive news media coverage of crime and victimization.
The following concerns can be augmented and further articulated by the specific experiences of crime victims/survivors and victim service providers within a community:
- a. Privacy. Although crime is a public matter high on the list of society’s concerns, it is a highly personal matter for most victims. Privacy is important to victims who endure sudden and unexpected grief, trauma, and loss. The ability to face the trauma of victimization in private and begin to learn how to cope with it is critical to the victim’s recovery process. Victim service providers can help victims by giving them referrals to supportive services, including crisis intervention, counseling, and support groups. They can explain to victims why the media want to speak to them; the benefits of talking to reporters or issuing a public statement; and measures victims can take to increase their sense of control and confidence in interviews. Victim service providers can also make a victim’s wishes for privacy known and, upon request from the victim, provide helpful information to the media in lieu of a personal interview.
- b. The Stigma of Victimization. Nobody wants to be a victim of crime. There is still a stigma associated with criminal victimization. It is unfortunately natural to attach blame or shame to victimization, as a rationale for why crime happens to “other people” and “not to me.” Victim service providers can help the media understand this dynamic and how accurate and sensitive coverage can educate the public and thereby reduce “victim blaming.”
- c. Confidentiality. Some victims don’t report crimes or refuse to cooperate with investigators because they are afraid other people will find out what happened to them. For some victims, confidentiality is critical to their personal safety—information that identifies their name or location could put them at risk. Victim service providers can help reporters understand these concerns and help victims find ways to tell their stores without violating their confidentiality or personal safety.
- d. Language and Context. Victim service providers can help reporters understand that the words they use can be inadvertently hurtful to victims and contribute to the stigma of victimization. For example, euphemisms used to describe the offender (the “Night Stalker”) or the crime (the “Preppie Murder”) may be memorable but they can glamorize the offender, thereby marginalizing the victim’s experience. News reporting that infers shock at allegations against specific defendants because of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, location or standing in the community negates that crimes are committed by all types of people and against all types of people.
- e. Inappropriate Timing: Interviewing at inappropriate times. “Inappropriate timing” may include as a crime is actually occurring or immediately following a crime; at funerals; in hospital settings; and during trials when the judge has issued a gag order. The role of the victim service provider is to help reporters understand the situation and offer alternatives to direct interviews or offer interviews at a future date.
- f. Aggressive or Intrusive Reporting. The news business is highly competitive. In their eagerness to get the story and get it first, reporters can push too hard. The Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism reminds reporters that they need different approaches for different situations. Investigative reporters trying to ferret out public fraud or skullduggery need to be aggressive in pursuing leads and pushing people to talk. However, the interviewers who get the best stories from victims are often those who are personable and friendly, so that victims feel comfortable telling their stories. In addition to experienced journalists, journalism students and young reporters in particular need to use care in balancing the need to remain skeptical and their need to help victims open up.
- g. Ignoring Victim Wishes: Ignoring the wishes of victims and survivors. One of the most critical roles of victim service providers is to determine what the victim wants and convey the victim’s wishes to the media. It helps for victims to understand the “big picture” of what is happening; i.e., the defendant may be granting interviews and reporters may seek other sources for interviews (who are not always reliable or accurate). Victim service providers can convey media requests for interviews and information to victims and help them explore options that respect and reflect their wishes. They can also ask the media to refrain from pressing victims to answer questions that ignore their wishes.
- h. Explicit Visuals: Explicit visual depictions of crime scenes and/or victims. Photographs and broadcast images of bloody crime scenes, injured victims, bodies, or body bags are highly intrusive and add little to a story besides sensationalism. Repeated visual clichés can contribute to desensitizing readers and viewers to violence. This is a concern that can best be brought up with reporters by victims who have been directly affected by this type of coverage.
- i. Inaccurate Reporting. While accurate reporting is essential, mistakes will be made. Victim service providers can help increase accuracy in news reporting by providing clear, written information about the facts of a case and about the victim; and by responding to the news media when inaccurate reporting occurs.