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Victims deserve to be treated as real people (Fall 1998)

by Bonnie Bucqueroux

Victims play a unique role in our culture. On the one hand, they remind us of the unexpected perils of life, for which they rightfully deserve our compassion, respect, and support. Yet they also make us nervous. "Our society values winners, and victims are losers," says Frank Ochberg, M.D., a psychiatrist with great experience in working with victims of violence and catastrophe. "We feel pity for them, but we want to distance ourselves from their pain and what we see as their weakness."

The challenge for journalists is not to let our universally conflicted feelings about victims color how they are portrayed. The goal is to avoid falling into the trap posed by the three common stereotypes.

The Noble Victim

One way we try to ease our collective discomfort with victims is by trivializing their pain and injury, by proposing that "good" people simply shrug off whatever comes their way. We love the stories of the plucky victim who walks away from the plane crash. We cheer the rape victim who gamely goes on without shedding a tear. There are, of course, a handful of victims who do seem to rise from the ashes unscathed. Little Jessica is plucked from the well and lives happily ever after. Detroit Lion football player Reggie Brown suffered a horrific injury, but we already see him walking.

The challenge lies in remembering that these victims are the exception and not the rule. The normal course of recovery, particularly emotional healing, is more likely to be a series of ups and downs than an unbroken trajectory upward.

Moreover, none of us can even truly know what is in the heart and mind of another. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote bravely and hauntingly about the horrors that he had endured. Most people assumed that he had come to terms with his experience, yet he unexpectedly ended his life by suicide.

Wisdom and a pure heart are no guarantee of survival, nor is the converse automatically true. Portraying a victim as plaster saint is not only unfair to that individual, but it burdens all victims with unrealistic expectations, on the part of others and themselves.

The Flip Side

If the victims who survive and thrive are the deserving and worthy victims, what does that imply about those who falter?

As this suggests, the reverse of the Noble Victims is the Unworthy Victim - the one who got what he or she deserved.

It is part of human nature to want to believe that the evil and ugly things that befall others cannot happen to us if we take the right steps to protect ourselves. Don't walk down that dark alley alone! Don't smoke! Don't climb into that rickety bus!

Bad things can indeed happen to good people who follow all the rules.

Journalists must never fall prey to the temptation to demonize. The fact that the woman who was murdered was a prostitute may help explain the dynamics of why she got into a car with a man that she did not know. But that does not in any way justify what happened to her.

The Poster Child

Unfair as well is treating victims as if they are only valuable as examples of a problem. I survived domestic violence, but there is more to me than that. I want the chance to tell my full story, and I resent being used to illustrate someone else's preconceptions.

It is offensive when I find myself interviewed for hours, only to find that I am given the one "emotional" quote in an article, while the experts are allowed to dissect me like a bug on a slide.

I think instead of how Dart Award winner Michele Stanush wrote about arson victim Emmett Jackson for the Austin American-Statesman. She let him pour his personal thoughts into a tape recorder when he was alone late at night during the many months of his recovery. He let her use those quotes to show that he is human. Her balanced article even talked about the fact that Emmett had done time. But she never implied that this justified his victimization. Nor did she deceive her readers into thinking that his survival came easy. What Stanush achieved was the toughest writing assignment of all - she let Emmett tell his truth, not hers.