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Covering crime without re-victimizing the victim

by William Coté and Bonnie Bucqueroux

This paper was presented at the Newspapers and Community Building Symposium, National Newspaper Association's Annual Convention, Opryland Hotel, Nashville, Tennessee, September 25, 1996

Community newspapers enjoy a close relationship with the people they serve, yet their staffs can find that direct contact is both a blessing and a curse, particularly when covering victims of violence.

On the one hand, community newspapers often receive praise for their exceptional sensitivity to the feelings of victims and their families. After all, community newspaper editors and staff members are part of the towns they cover, usually working and living in the immediate area. They usually know many of their news sources, whether community leaders or "ordinary" people who happen to make news. And if a citizen is unusually happy - or upset - about a particular story, the reporter will probably hear about it directly, while waiting in line at the supermarket or leaving the church service.

Reporters and photographers from bigger places who may visit to gather information for a story typically do not experience the same connection to and concern for the community. At a Victims and the Media workshop for high-school editors and their advisors last summer, a young woman from a suburban school near Flint (Mich.) talked about how her town felt invaded by big-city media, who were there to ferret out information on the deaths of two local girls who had been murdered by a serial killer. "I don't know any other way to put it - they made the girls out to be sluts, as if they deserved what happened to them," she said. She said that she was appalled by the reporters' arrogance and that they had betrayed the community by casually "trashing" the girls' reputations and then disappearing before anyone could confront them. In contrast, she said the local papers treated the victims and their families with dignity and respect.

On the other hand is the small-town community weekly that still suffers from the aftermath of reporting on a workplace shooting two years ago. While their coverage was restrained in comparison to that of the mega-dailies, the weekly's decision to run a color picture of the crime scene above the fold on page one continues to cost them dearly. While the picture did not show any carnage, it starkly depicted the chaos and clutter left on the plant floor after the incident.

Immediately after the photo ran, the plant manager and the union leadership co-signed a letter of complaint to the paper, arguing that printing the picture in color on the front page was tasteless and offensive. The company also pulled its ad budget. Even now, two years later, the relationship remains severed, despite attempts by the publisher and even the local police chief to heal the rift. "Not only are we being held to a different standard because we are local," the publisher says, "but this also seems to have become a turf issue." There is also the sense that the corporate outrage against all media is being funneled toward the closest target.

The publisher of that community weekly was so concerned about the continuing rift that he invited a visit from the Victims and the Media Response Team, sponsored by Michigan State University's School of Journalism. The team is composed of working professional journalists, educators and mental-health professionals. It is designed to debrief newspaper and broadcast staffs that may have suffered themselves from covering traumatic events.

The response team concluded that the paper had gone out of its way to be sensitive to community feelings, while still reporting necessary facts. In the response team's assessment, the community newspaper had avoided the sensationalism that marred the coverage of the event by some metropolitan print and broadcast media.

As these examples illustrate, community newspapers must constantly struggle to find the line between being accurate reporters of ugly events and becoming a booster for business interests. They risk being damned by critics on both sides. While an ability to withstand criticism is an essential requirement for anyone entering the field of journalism, editors and reporters of community newspapers in particular should seek questions and critiques from their readers as well as their professional peers. Does sensitivity for victims and their families automatically imply pulling punches? Is a tough, investigative stance toward reporting on the violence in our culture at odds with respect for victims and their issues? How can community newspapers serve their readers best?

Again, a community-sized paper is different than a big metro daily. When there is violence in a town, residents need to know the relevant facts to ease fears, squelch unfounded rumors and help provide the information that serves as a foundation for community action and public policy to meet any threat. A community newspaper is admirably suited to do that.

Clarity and coherence of mission

Many newspapers today, large and small, are grappling with efforts to re-think their crime coverage. At issue is: What does the newspaper hope to accomplish by its reporting on violence?

Sensationalism and fear-mongering contribute to what George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications has called the mean world syndrome, where people exposed to graphic media accounts of violent crime exhibit a heightened sense of irrational fear, thereby adding to a climate that keeps people imprisoned in their homes. Simply proclaiming the reader's right to know falls short of providing a meaningful and clear-cut mission, and the fact that information on crime is relatively easy to secure is not a good enough reason for devoting so much space to stories on human cruelty.

To be of real benefit to the community, crime coverage must educate. It must empower readers, providing them information that they can use to understand the problem and to prevent and solve it. Among the papers that have revised their policies with these issues in mind is the Miami Herald. While certainly not a small paper, the Herald's stated reason for re-thinking its overall mission was to become more community oriented. In keeping with that goal, stories on violence must now do more than inflame, they must also provide at least some analysis of solutions.

While that might sound universally popular, in practice the policy led to the paper's recent vilification in the Columbia Journalism Review. The managing editor refused to run dramatic photos of gang girls with guns, arguing that they risked inciting the community without offering hope. The photographer who left the paper at least in part because of the dispute obviously saw the change as inherently antithetical to hard-hitting reporting, and traditional journalists treated the incident as if the Herald were in danger of becoming an arm of the Chamber of Commerce.

Helping victims tell all of the story

Yet viewed from another angle, the question becomes whether too much of our country's crime coverage either glorifies or demonizes the perpetrators -- while diminishing the plight of victims. That situation is, in fact, often noted by judges of the Dart Award for excellence in reporting on victims of violence. Selection of the winner of the $10,000 annual award, administered by the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University's School of Journalism, often hinges on identifying the entry that best presents the story and voice of a victim or victims.

Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, M.D., an adjunct professor who helped launch and sustain the Victims and the Media Program, participated in coining the terms Act 1 and Act 2, to distinguish the two kinds of stories that constitute most victim coverage. An Act 1 story is where reporters cover immediate, unfolding events. The primary mission here is to inform the community, clearly and accurately, of any continuing danger or threat, and to solicit their help (as witnesses, with information, as searchers). These fast-breaking Act 1 stories often include quick quotes from victims, families and friends, when possible, and the challenge typically is to provide a forum for their information and their feelings without inflicting a "second wound."

Act 2 stories usually appear later, detailing the victim's painful progress toward healing and recovery. Not only do victims deserve their say, equity demands that the media balance the often disproportionate attention paid to the "bad guys" by paying attention to victims and victim issues. All too often, once the perpetrators are arrested, the bulk of the coverage shifts to the offenders and their journey through the criminal justice system.

Our purpose is not to bring back the era of the sob sisters, who wrung every tear from the reader with maudlin, clichˇd and hackneyed stories about the plucky and courageous victims who bounced back without a backward glance. In reality, the road back from trauma is marked with bumps and detours, and offering victims a chance to tell this part of the story not only benefits the individuals who have suffered, but it serves the community by reminding them of the awful price we pay as a culture for the violence we endure.

Confronting issues of race and class

Troubling as well is the danger of blurring of the line between victim and perpetrator, when crime coverage seems to indict an entire community for the acts of a few. Minority residents of public housing projects who participated in a nationwide training program on community policing consistently complained about press coverage of their neighborhoods. A woman from a "notorious" housing project in Chicago was especially incensed. "The only time reporters ever come here is when someone gets shot, then they leave as soon as they can. Most of the people who live here are decent people, who work hard to make the place safer, but nobody takes the time to talk to us about that." Re-thinking the mission of crime coverage to include prevention and solution would encourage reporters to spend the time digging out stories on how communities are trying to solve their problems.

Broadening the focus can mean including information on various kinds of assistance available. If we think of the changes that have occurred in the coverage of domestic violence, we can see the press coming of age as a catalyst for positive change. In addition to recognizing that domestic violence is a crime, our Dart Award entries show that many papers have started including sidebar listings of agencies and shelters that offer direct help.

While our program promotes letting victims tell their own stories, since they are the best experts, there are times when professional sources can provide illuminating statistics or special expertise or insight that adds context and at least a glimpse of the big picture. Important as well is that reporters expend the extra effort to find the "hidden" victims - the upscale wife who was beaten, not just the woman in poverty who files the police report.

The special problem of sexual assault

The MSU program attempts to give journalism students and working professionals the tools they need to avoid inflicting that "second wound," and no group is more vulnerable than adults and children who fall victim to sexual assault. In addition to dealing with physical pain and injury, all victims of human cruelty suffer an assault on their sense of identity and power. Yet Dr. Ochberg, an expert in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who has treated many victims, says, "Victims in our society already feel that they have been labeled as losers, weak and pathetic, so when you add the stigma of sexual assault, it is easy to see how vulnerable this makes them."

While most media have policies that shield the identity of these victims, high-visibility incidents where the issue has been revisited makes many victims wary. The William Kennedy Smith rape case reportedly resulted in a dramatic reduction of rape reports to police. While most of the reaction no doubt stemmed from fear that so-called date rape is tough to win in court, the fact that the victim's name was revealed by major media without her permission no doubt added to the price that victims felt they might have to pay.

Migael Scherer, a rape survivor who works closely with our sister program at the University of Washington, found herself feeling victimized again during the trial of her attacker, when one of the two Seattle papers published accounts of only two days of testimony during the two-week trial, and both focused on the defense arguments. While the reporter attempted to provide a condensed version of the prosecution's case, the only two headlines to appear implied that there was a good chance the victim had identified the wrong man. In her presentations, Migael talks movingly of how she feared that these accounts could raise doubts, even among those who knew her.

Perhaps the best rule of thumb in such cases is for reporters and editors to re-read copy on such sensitive cases one last time, through the prism of how they could feel if the victim were their son or daughter, husband or wife. While that perspective should not automatically carry the argument concerning what goes in or out, it deserves to be part of the overall mix.

Problematic as well is that the press loves nothing more than man-bites-dog. It helps explain why the rich and famous murder victim receives greater attention, and this phenomenon also helps to explain what appears to be the overplaying of cases of false allegations of sexual attack and abuse. Research strongly suggests that crimes such as rape do not have a greater share of false reports than other violent crimes. Yet concerns about false allegations are raised far more often in stories about sex crimes than in articles on robbery.

Protecting juveniles

A different privacy standard rightfully applies to both victims and perpetrators who are juveniles. Yet recent cases show how the press can find itself compromised by unfolding events. In the case of abducted children, the press has a clear obligation to publish names and photos of the youngsters, as happened in a recent case where a convicted molester out on parole was suspected of kidnapping two young brothers. Yet doing so narrows the "wiggle room" in keeping a youngster's identity secret in succeeding accounts, if molestation surfaces as an official charge, as it did in this prominent case. Of concern as well is that the mother and father were migrant farmworkers who spoke little English, and there is reason to question whether the sexual victimization of the boy would have been as widely reported had he come from an affluent or powerful family. Of note also is that most sexual violence against children is committed by family members and friends, yet it is "stranger danger" that receives a disproportionate share of the ink.

The toll on the staff

Reporting on violence takes its toll, and ambiguous cases fraught with complications and conflict up the ante. Just as victims of violence are at risk of being traumatized, so are those who cover their stories.

Imagine the punishment suffered by reporters for the Wenatchee World during the year that they had to report on: a devastating forest fire, the murder of a transient by two 12-year-old boys, gruesome deaths in a landslide, two children who died when the family camper slid into a river, the murders of a mother and daughter, and a collision that killed 11, including nine members of one family -- all in this one small town. Yet even those horrors could not compare with the pressure cooker of covering the unfolding of the infamous cases alleging that members of a local church sexually abused children in "Happy Valley," an unfortunate sobriquet the town earned when a local doctor was alleged to overprescribe Prozac.

On the one hand, as part of a community newspaper (Wenatchee is 150 miles from Seattle), the reporters involved were especially sensitive to the issue of maintaining the privacy of the juveniles making allegations. However, subsequent national coverage argued strongly that readers needed to know that the initial accuser was the foster child of the police officer in charge of the sex crimes unit. Their spin was clearly that the sex-obsessed and/or paranoid officer may have planted false memories in the girl, or that the girl's desire to please her foster father prompted her to pretend fantasies were reality.

As a result, the Wenatchee reporters felt that many prominent national media portrayed them as gullible and inept rubes. Staff reporter Jeanette Marantos, who worked on the story for years, said, "I was always in awe of the national press before, but then I saw them swoop in and make up their minds immediately which side they were on, and that hurt." Not only did the reporters have to cover a lurid and difficult story over a long period of time, with a small staff already stretched thin and stressed by covering all those other disasters, but they felt pilloried unmercifully by journalism's "elites."

Talking out the trauma in a supportive atmosphere helps. Professor Roger Simpson of the University of Washington assembled a team who ventured to Wenatchee, so that that staff could have an opportunity to vent and de-brief. The Victims and the Media Program at MSU has done two similar on-site interventions, one with the paper that covered the aforementioned plant shooting and a previous visit with the Ludington Daily News' staff, after they covered a fire that killed many children. The teams typically include a mix of working professionals, academics and therapists, and plans include expanding the outreach and replicating these efforts to serve greater numbers over time.

Tips and techniques

One factor that can help in reducing the stress and trauma associated with covering such demanding incidents is training. It is ironic (and sad) that no editor would send a reporter who had never seen one to cover a football game, yet rookies are routinely thrown into the crime beat with little or no special instruction or preparation. More troubling still is that many veterans still see this as an amusing and necessary test of fire, which supposedly toughens the breed as it weeds out the weak and incompetent - with no concern for the victims mauled by the process (interviewer and interviewee alike).

As a primer, the following is a list of basic tips and techniques that the MSU School of Journalism's program attempts to impart to each journalism student:

  • Grant the victim a sense of power and control - Remember that victims of violence and their family and friends are suffering from horrific stress that has robbed them of their sense of mastery. Also remember that they are not experts in journalistic conventions. One small thing that you can do that addresses both concerns is to tell people that they can take a break whenever they need to. Instead of a theoretical discussion of "off the record," empower victims by giving them permission to turn off the tape recorder whenever they want to say something that they do not want used. Tell them to tell you to put down your notebook. Take advantage of any and all opportunities to include them in the decision-making. An excellent way to even the playing field and make yourself accountable is to give the subject your business card -- tell them that they can call you to discuss the story or just to talk.
  • Discuss ground rules up front - Some have suggested, only half-jokingly, that reporters should be forced to read a version of the Miranda warning - You have the right to remain silent . . .. While some might wince at the thought, ambush tactics have no place in a victim interview, and experience confirms that discussing issues of privacy and confidentiality at the beginning can prevent misunderstandings and problems later. Discussion of the "rules of engagement" also serve as an icebreaker that can help establish trust. This is the time for you to explain what you need, when the piece will appear, who you want to talk with and for how long. Make sure to encourage the victim to ask questions.
  • Prepare for the possibility you will be the first to deliver the bad news - Time and again, reporters have telephoned or appeared on a family's porch looking for quotes about someone who has been killed or maimed, only to find that no one had yet been informed. The time to decide what you would do and say is before you make the call or ring the doorbell. The military always sends two people to deliver a death notice, one of whom is a chaplain, and both receive extensive training in how to deliver the news and provide comfort. The role of the reporter is different, and you do not always have the luxury of a companion, but at least you should organize your thoughts before you act.
  • Ask permission - This is particularly important whenever you approach the victim's physical "zone of intimacy." Even caring gestures can be misinterpreted as threatening or out of bounds. It is best to approach without your notebook in hand - ask if you can take notes. Ask if you can use a tape recorder. It is better to say, Would you like a tissue, than to thrust the box at them.
  • Tips on what to say - Fans of the TV show NYPD Blue know that the detectives always say "Sorry for your loss." To our ears, the phrase may begin to sound trite and artificial, but it is far better to use a canned phrase that strikes the right note than the wrong words that wound. Martin Symonds, a former NYPD deputy police commissioner who went on to become a therapist, suggested that at least one of the three following sentiments will always be appropriate:
    • I'm sorry this happened to you.
    • I'm glad you weren't killed.
    • It's not your fault.
  • Tips on what NOT to say - Never say, "I know how you feel" - trust me, you don't (even if you think you may have suffered a similar victimization). The most egregious case that has come to our attention occurred when a reporter approached a man who had just learned that his daughter had been savagely raped and murdered. "I know how you feel - I remember when my dog died," he said, thereby adding immensely to that father's pain. If you find yourself at a loss for words, John Brady, author of The Craft of Interviewing, suggests asking a "when" question - Not only are such queries less threatening for reporter and interviewee alike, but they tend to elicit more detailed responses.
  • Accuracy above all - Accuracy is the overarching goal in all reporting, but the stakes are much higher here. Just recently, Muriel Kirby, a victim volunteer who appears in our journalism classes (so that students can practice their skills in a supportive environment), was featured on two local news shows on the same station during Victim's Awareness Week. The president of the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, Muriel's daughter Jeanette was killed 10 years ago in Grand River Park in Holt, a suburb of Lansing. Yet one broadcast showed the reporter pointing to the sign for Francis Park in Lansing, citing it as a murder scene. Worse by far was the second report that talked about "Jennifer's" murder - a dreadful mistake all the more terrible and eerie for the fact that Muriel's son, Jeanette's surviving brother, was watching, and he has a young daughter named Jennifer. Keep in mind that errors that make everyday people angry can become monumental issues for traumatized people looking for a target for their frustration.
  • Be especially sensitive to imputations of blame - Fortunately, we have come a long way since the days that rape reports regularly included mention of what the victim was wearing - but only if it was "scanty." Yet victims often question why certain details are used or how they are handled. If you mention that the victim had been drinking, does it imply that he or she was drunk? Reporting requires more than emptying your notebook, and editors should always fix their antennae to spot any inadvertent suggestion that the victim was at fault.
  • Be alert to the special impact of photos, graphics and overall presentation - A picture can also cut a thousand times deeper than words. How much blood do readers need to see? What do they learn from yet another photo of a body being loaded into the ambulance? Time and again, a sensitive and respectful story on a difficult issue like domestic violence is undercut by an illustration of a fearful woman, portrayed as cowering and pitiful. Or there is the headline that obliterates all of the nuances crafted into the text below.

No doubt reporters for community newspapers quickly learn most of these skills -- if only because they run a much higher risk of being confronted face to face on the street or in the supermarket than journalists at the New York Times. Yet the goal is to avoid learning by your mistakes, since the price paid by victims and reporters alike is too high. The challenge is to avoid beating yourself up for well-meaning mistakes or missteps - without tuning out crucial warning signals that something must change.