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Victims care about accuracy above all (Fall 1996)

by Bill Cote, co-chair of the Victims and the Media Faculty Advisory Committee

When the School of Journalism was launching the Victims and the Media Program, I sought some advice from our organizational partner, the Michigan Victim Alliance.

After all, I reasoned, the MVA is composed of representatives of many types of victim/survivor situations and advocacy groups. Their experiences and views ought to be pretty reflective and inclusive of the concerns, fears, need and hopes of many victims of violence whom journalists cover.

So when I sat down with some MVA board members to ask them to list some of their biggest compplaints about media coverage, I really expected I'd hear first and foremost about "intriducing into our privacy," "lack of sensitivity," and generally about situations where victims didn't want to be bothered at all.

Instead I twas started to hear several MVA leaders complain about misspelled names, incorrect physical descriptions of victims, wrong ages and erroneous sequence of events.

They were talkiung about accuracy - or the lack thereof - the very thing we sometimes have a hard time convincing some journalism students is critical!

"You mean," I asked them, "you didn't object so much to the coverage as to the way it was done?" "That's about it," they replied. Even though they might not have exactly the same ideas as to what is and isn't "newsworthy," most said they expected that there would be coverage, like it or not.

Many complaints were either about the methods reporters and photographers used during interviews or the way the stories came out in print or on the air.

Some victim advocates certainly did say that they didn't want to be interviewed at all and were angry when reporters did things such as barge into a hospital intensive care unit to attempt to interview the wife of a shooting victim who was struggling for his life. Or asking a parent whose child had just been found mudered, "How do you feel?".

Bad timing

Again and again, survivors and their relatives often say that it's the timing that causes a "second wound." Trying to interview someone who is still in shock, suffering immediate grief and confusion, may agonizingly twist an emotional knife in the stomach.

By waiting or by using intermediaries to get information, reporters will often find survivors williing to talk to them later.

Helping victims heal

I've frequently discussed that phenomenon with psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, M.D., who co-founded the Victims and the Media Program at MSU. He confirms that victims and families can benefit from talking about their experiences and having them reported respectfully.

Ochberg and other medical-care providers always emphasize that journalists aren't expected to be social workers - that's not our training or job. But since whatever we do as journalists can have such a strong impact on traumatized subjects, we must be aware of our potential power to harm them.

That's confirmed by victims and relatives themselves who now courageously tell their stories before journalism classes and professional workshops. They frequently volunteer that while they want to help fledgling and practicing journalists, they also fel they are getting considerable therapeutic benefits from the experience themselves.

"Oh, it really does help to talk about what happened," said Pat Anderson, whose husband Dan was the shooting victim referred to earlier. "If they had just called me the next day at home or even maybe in a different place in the hospital, I would have wanted to say some things. Even now, several years later, it still helps to talk about it."

"That's sure the case," added Dan himself. "I don't say anything about the shooting was a good experience, mind you, but since it happened, I'm glad we can help some other people now. That feels good."

Major catastrophes

If you still doubt how far that attitude reaches, consider the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. Certainly that massive cruelty brought deal or grief to thousands of people directlky and to the whole nation indirectly.

Yet the many positive comments from victims and relatives about the coverage of the Daily Oklahoman impressed the Dart Award judges, who awarded them the $10,000 prize. We're seeing similar responses so far in the aftermath of the TWA flight 800 explosion. Where reporters have been intrusive or they rushed to spread inaccurate rumors, people have been hurt and angry - and said so.

At the same time, some of the TWA reporting I've seen has been uplifting and touching. It has helped bring entire communities together in shared grieving and support for one another.Not incidentally, that victim-focused coverage also happens to be some of the most spellbinding. The rewards - to everyone - seem well worth the labor.