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Victims as public figures and the issue of privacy

by Gloriane Peck

In 1997 the world was shocked when celebrated fashion designer Gianni Versace was found dead in his Miami villa. There was no cause or reason for his murder. He had no known enemies or criminal ties that might have explained away his death. Authorities later discovered Versace was one of five men left behind by Andrew Cunanan. Cunanan was a young, attractive, gay man who had a charm with rich men. He hid in Miami's gay community where few police officers had ties that would allow them to flush him out. He eventually committed suicide after police surrounded the houseboat he was hiding in. It was the end to a tale of terror.

However, it was not the end for the families of the people murdered by Cunanan. Not only were family members dealing with the loss of loved ones but also with the vicious rumors that were spreading. The Washington Post, Times of London, San Diego Union Tribune, New York Daily News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that, according to the police, the motive for the killings was that one of the men had infected Cunanan with HIV. The most prominent of the victims, openly gay Versace, was known for his wealth, and therefore he became the media focus of these accusations. This situation heightened public fascination with the rich and famous. It also brought out societal stereotypes concerning gays, such as AIDS being a "gay disease" and gays being unstable people who commit crimes of passion, both of which should not be taken seriously.

Nearly 20 years prior to Versace's murder, Donald Miller, then a senior at Michigan State University, killed his girlfriend Martha Sue Young. He went on to kill three other young women and brutally rape a 13-year-old girl in her home. Even before Young's body was found, the police suspected Miller was involved in her disappearance or perhaps even her death. They asked the victim's mother, Sue Young, to work with the media to find out what had happened. The media embraced her. They assisted Sue Young in distributing information to help her find her daughter, while refraining from harassing her and her family. In contrast to when Cunanan committed suicide, the media mourned with Sue Young upon the conviction of Miller and allowed her to grieve in peace.

Although these situations happened at different periods, they both involved innocent victims of serial killers with heavy media involvement. Yet Versace and his family were victimized again by the media for his homosexuality, which later was used by the media to suggest that he caused his own death. The media harassed his family for a shameless quote and a picture for the nightly news. Martha Sue Young was portrayed as a good girl who was victimized by her crazed boyfriend and her mother was pitied and allowed to grieve. Why was there such a vast difference in the way these two murders were covered?

The most plausible reason for this difference is the fact that Versace was a public figure and Martha Sue Young was a private citizen. Often times when the media cover news dealing with public figures, they are on the hunt for a juicy bit. They are on the hunt to reveal a shocking truth about a prominent figure loved by many. It sells newspapers and brings in viewers. For the unknown names and faces of private figures, their lives may not bring the same kind of attention that a celebrity scandal can.

Some reporters say public figures bring this media attention upon themselves by placing their lives in the limelight. "By the very nature of being a public figure, the public person is going to search out the press," said Bill McWhirter, contributing editor for Time magazine. "They will try all kinds of things to be seen favorably. The public person will be the first to complain he or she doesn't have a private life. "

The debate remains as to what the rights of public figures are and whether those rights should differ from those of private citizens. Should a senator be forced to talk about a mugging or a rape just because he or she is frequently in the media? Should private citizens be given more privilege and leniency because they are unaccustomed to the media? If the pain and grieving of private citizens and public figures following a tragedy or victimization are the same, why are public figures treated differently? Why are public figures page one stories for weeks at a time, while private citizens are page one stories for only a day? Where should journalists draw the line? Most importantly, what effects does media treatment have on victims who are overwhelmed in either case by the media's need to get a tragic quote?


Society's relationship with public figures is very complicated, says Bonnie Bucqueroux, assistant coordinator of the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University. "We have a love-hate relationship with public figures," she said. "We envy them and resent them."

Bucqueroux points to the Patty Hearst kidnapping in the '70s as one example of this resentment. People were very eager to believe that Hearst, the daughter of a wealthy businessman and prominent newspaper publisher, participated in a string of robberies not because she was forced but because she wanted to.

"As a culture we embrace these people with a fervor, but at the same time we're very quick to believe the worst about them," she said. "We want them brought down to our level."

Often, the public confuses a celebrity's persona with their actual person, Bucqueroux says. "We feel that we know them. We think maybe we'll see the mask slip," she said. "What we want to see is that moment when the mask slips and their humanity shows."

Celebrities and politicians cannot escape public scrutiny the way private figures can. In the quest to see the inner-workings of celebrity life, Bucqueroux says public figures may be national news for months during a time of tragedy or victimization, while private citizens are page one stories for only a day.

When Detroit News columnist and editorial writer George Cantor's daughter Courtney died in a fall from her dorm room window at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in October, newspapers ran stories for several weeks covering her funeral, examining the safety of campus dorms and blaming alcohol for the incident.

Cantor says he was treated by reporters with a deference other victims do not always get. "I was a special case because I am media myself," he said. "I wasn't ever treated rudely, everyone was very apologetic about intruding."

Courtney Cantor died at about 6 a.m. By 6 that evening, Cantor said there was a television crew at their house. He found some comfort in talking to the journalist, but his wife found it somewhat intrusive.

"It helped to talk about (Courtney), it helped to say nice things about her," he said. "It helped to clear the mind and get some emotions out. "

While some who attended his daughter's funeral were upset about photographers with telephoto lenses getting shots of pallbearers and mourners from across the street, Cantor said he understood that was their job. "When I saw those pictures in the paper, my first reaction was those are great shots," he said.

Cantor, a native of Detroit, said he had only a few negative experiences with the press. One photographer asked him to leave the funeral home to go outside for some pictures. Cantor refused.

Additionally, although there was a trace of alcohol in Courtney Cantor's system, it was not related to her fall. "One thing that bothered me was that very early on the media developed a mindset that this was a campus drinking story," Cantor said, wondering why more journalists did not look at the safety of the room.

After more than 30 years in the newsroom, Cantor said it was disconcerting to be on the other side of the story. "It was a little hard to have it turned around on me," he said. "Some of the questions came pretty close."

Cantor said he could see how someone who is not media savvy could be overwhelmed by journalists. However, he said his experience did not give him a real advantage in handling the media, as being a grieving parent is the great equalizer. "I don't think I should have been treated differently, but facts are facts," he said.

According to Chaz Osburn, executive city editor of the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal, public and private figures' rights do not differ. "I believe that (public figures) have a right to privacy, but we as journalists also have a right to ask them questions."

When a public figure's private life is inconsistent with his or her public life, it is news, says Peter Gavrilovich, assistant nation and world editor at the Detroit Free Press.

"If someone is an elected official, they know what the rules are," he said. "They can choose to answer things. They are compelled to answer some things about public matters.

"The recent events of the president show how private matters become public matters when he perjured himself." Gavrilovich said. "A public official has a private life until they become part of the public record."

According to Bucqueroux, public figures often have an edge that private citizens do not when it comes to dealing with reporters during a time of grief or tragedy. She looks at the example of Bill Cosby, who asked the press to leave him and his family to grieve when his son was murdered a few years ago. Later, when Cosby was ready to talk, he was able to call Dan Rather at home to set up an interview.

"If he had been the black, inner-city resident of a housing project, I'm not sure he would have gotten the respect from the media that he did," Bucqueroux said. "In some ways celebrities have some protection. I think Bill Cosby has the microphone if he wants to say the press crossed the line."

Additionally, with his press contacts and staff, Cosby had a buffer of privacy that average citizen victims do not get. "(Public figures) benefit from having professionals in place to help out," she said. "Sometimes they have a stronger circle of protection."

Public figures have more control over when they are going to talk, what they will talk about, with whom and for how long as well.

However, Bucqueroux calls the mix of fame with tragedy a double-edged sword.

Celebrities pay the price when dealing with invasions of privacy, especially for their family members. "How can they protect their family members?"

Celebrity crime footage and stories often are used over the years on anniversaries and as hooks for similar cases, which means for the public figure that his or her tragedy could come back when it is least expected.

In celebrity cases, media often try to pay for private information from hospitals and labs, such as reports and photos. "If it is a celebrity case, there's an underground feeding frenzy to get that information," Bucqueroux said. Private figures do not encounter this in the same way.

In a more positive light, celebrities can use their power and influence to bring media attention to different kinds of crime and victimization.

Bucqueroux sees some other advantages, though. She says in the case of a missing or dead child, at least at the local level, a public figure or celebrity parent is less likely to be accused than a private parent would be. "Public figures almost get a pass in a local community," she said. "Their celebrity does somewhat protect them at the local level."

Lastly, Bucqueroux says public figures can use their celebrity to bring attention to their plight in a time of tragedy. Celebrities adopt "pet" issues and gain support for them, often as a result of a tragedy or victimization. "We are a brand-name society and celebrities and public figures have a brand name," she said.

When Private Figures Enter the Public Eye

Private citizen victims may not have the resources, money and power of their public figure counterparts, but some have made it their mission to fight back. They have taken the pain of being victims, either directly or indirectly, and turned it into motivation to help others in the same situation. Such is the case of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh. Walsh and his family were devastated when the police found the head of their 10-year-old son, Adam, who had been kidnapped from a department store in Florida. Walsh said in the Buffalo (New York) News in 1998 that he remembers the pain and the grief being tremendous and unbearable. However, he became an advocate for the rights of children and other victims of violence. He aided in the passage of the federal Missing Children Act and founded the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 1988, he became the host for America's Most Wanted on the Fox network. The program has been on air for 10 years and has helped to capture 500 fugitives in this country. As a result, the FBI named Walsh the "Man of the Year" in 1990.

Sue Young also has taken steps to make a difference and to honor the memory of her daughter in Michigan. She became a member of the Committee for Community Awareness and Protection. The organization has caused states to consider passing a civil commitment law, which would allow states to quarantine violent criminals by protesting their release even when they have served their time.

Violence took the lives of Walsh's and Sue Young's children and caused them to react. Another parent, Cynthia McCue, recently began to speak out about the dangers of binge drinking following the alcohol-related death of her son, Bradley. Bradley McCue, 21, was an MSU student who died in November. McCue celebrated his 21st birthday at bar near campus, consuming 24 shots. His blood-alcohol level was .44, which is four times the legal limit for driving.

Cynthia McCue has used the media to educate young people in hopes of preventing another such tragedy. She and her husband formed a nonprofit organization, B.R.A.D., which stands for Be Responsible About Drinking. Plans for the organization include making videos to educate college students about drinking to be shown at freshman orientation programs, sending 21st birthday cards to students reminding them to celebrate responsibly and talking with college and high school students about the dangers of binge drinking. In April, Cynthia McCue spoke about drinking at the Sigma Delta Tau sorority house in East Lansing.

Many private citizens use their pain after a tragedy to help to prevent similar situations from happening. However, others feel very uncomfortable with being thrust into the limelight. Going from private citizen to victim and then to public figure can cause even more trauma in their lives. Even though Cynthia McCue used the media to promote awareness about the tragedy of binge drinking, she admits she initially felt the media overstepped their bounds during her grieving. She said after a news conference by the East Lansing medical examiner who confirmed her son's death, a television station truck was in her driveway when she returned from buying her son's cemetery plot. The media were also at the funeral home and the funeral.

"I felt very strongly that there wasn't a need for that at that time," Cynthia McCue said. "They didn't respect our requests to wait until we were ready. They kept calling. We wanted to be left alone to deal with it and absorb it."

Some psychiatrists feel the media interrupts the natural grieving process people need to heal. Frank Ochberg, M.D., an adjunct professor of journalism and criminal justice at MSU, said the process also has different stages ranging from shock to depression. When the media contacts families, they may not be aware of what stage of grief a person is in. "Grief comes from loss, feeling that a piece of oneself is lost," Ochberg said. "It starts with depression, they may have illusions about spirituality. A victim of human cruelty however feels dominated and lowered. They may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not related to simple healthy grief. Sufferers are haunted by certain kinds of imagery and may think they're crazy."

Maureen Ramsey, MSU police detective, said her husband, Lansing Police Department officer Matt Ramsey, was haunted by memories of an 18-year-old Lansing man he shot during a routine assignment turned bad. Maureen Ramsey said her husband and his two partners, Mary Stevens and a police dog, Mackenzie, were called to a crime scene because Aldric McKinstry was alleged to have a weapon and to have fled the scene of a felonious assault. Stevens ran after McKinstry into the basement of an abandoned house. The officers stood in the doorway while attempting to negotiate with McKinstry. They sent the dog into the basement when McKinstry refused to leave and he proceeded to shoot the dog and come toward the officers. Matt Ramsey shot him six times as he came to the door.

The incident attracted media attention because the man was black and had been shot after he killed the police dog. The headlines made it appear to be an act of a racist cop who valued a dog's life over the life of a black man. Matt Ramsey was still dealing with taking a human life when the media turned against him, Maureen Ramsey said. She works directly with the media as a public information officer and is often the spokesperson for MSU during investigations at the university. She said a few of the reporters she deals with called her at her office in pursuit of an interview with her husband.

"I sheltered my husband from the media," she said. "I didn't allow him to read any newspapers. I knew it was going to get controversial. I didn't expect people to understand about the loss of his dog. The dog was viewed as only a dog. The man threatened the lives of officers."

Maureen Ramsey said her husband became very depressed, thinking the community was against him. He was placed in mandatory therapy sessions with his department. Down the road he may need more therapy, Maureen Ramsey said, especially if the situation with the media repeats itself during the civil trial McKinstry's family has filed against the Lansing Police Department.

Media Protocol

Most newspapers do not have written protocol for handing victims. However, since the mid-80s, journalism schools have started offering, and sometimes requiring, ethics course to get students thinking about their handling of sources.

Media ethics courses help train students to consider the best way to get their stories, while keeping in mind the ramifications of their work.

McWhirter, formerly of Time magazine and now an adjunct professor of journalism at MSU, teaches one such media and ethics course. "As reporters, we tend to think only of the story," he said. "As teachers, we tend to think of the consequences of the story, of the end truth the public sees."

The course teaches students how to think, rather than what to think, he says. "I am trying to raise new respect for the color gray," McWhirter said. "We're trying to stop students in their tracks and ask them are they doing the right thing and what are the consequences."

One scenario McWhirter presents to his students is that of a competitor identifying a victim by name. "It is hard for a public figure to say what is private," he said. "In this class, I'm telling them it may not matter as much as you think. If you are siding with the majority, then you're not thinking."

According to Mike Cordts, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, he gives his reporters suggestions for handling victim sources. "We have nothing written," he said. "Written polices are generally kind of useless in a newspaper setting because everything's so different."

Cordts advises his staff against intruding on or badgering the family. "The story is not worth it to cause the family more grief," he said. "We have to do everything possible to show them that we understand."

The same stands for public figures in a time of victimization, he says. "You still have to go with what the family's wishes are," Cordts said. "Common sense and decency have to be your guide. They have the same rights. That's the right to talk about it if they want to and the right to say no if they want to."

However, McWhirter says he approaches public and private figures differently. "Public figures are much more accustomed to dealing with the press," he said. "The private is not prepared at all. I tend to be more personal with the private citizen and more professional with the public figure. If they are rats, then I go after them."

Public figures may have ulterior motives for telling their stories, McWhirter cautions. "The private person may not have such ambitions," he said. "They don't know what to say. It is about as comfortable as being hauled off to the police station without a lawyer."

The buffer public figures have with the media gives them an advantage. "The more public you are, the more control you have over your public life," McWhirter said. "You have a lawyer and advisers. The private individual doesn't have these people to protect them. I try to protect them from themselves in an interview."

The rules of reporting are different when it comes to public figures, says Marlon Vaughn, a reporter at the Flint Journal. "Public figures expect (media coverage) and are very studied and cautious," he said. "An average person would be shocked by the press. They are usually very open and honest."

Despite a public figure's media savvy, Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood, a police and general assignment reporter, with The Grand Rapids Press, says reporters still need to remember that they are people. "I try to be sensitive to what they're going through, no matter who they are," she said. "I'm always thinking of the human side. I always try to think, 'How would I react in this situation?'"

There's a fine line between a public figure's public and private lives, Ackerman-Haywood says. A local politician was hospitalized for heart surgery and the Press found out about it but chose not to publish it.

"If he had wanted us to know about it, he would have issued a press release," she said. Typically, however, Ackerman-Haywood says there's even more pressure on the reporter to get the story when a public figure is involved.

Advice to Other Journalists

Being an overbearing reporter who harasses victims to get stories is an outdated means of getting an interview. The approach that many reporters are beginning to incorporate is being sensitive in dealing with people.

"We need a lot more tact," said Vaughn of the Flint Journal. "When something just happens, there is a tendency to barge in when the person is grieving. Sometimes we can wait and do it on the family's schedule."

McWhirter said it is important to be a person first. "We haven't been very good reporters because we haven't been very good people," he said. "The most we can hope for is a very distinguished, up-and-coming breed of reporters that are thoughtful and ethical in their approach."

Cordts at the Sun-Times tells his reporters to be polite when they approach families. They should let families know they want to show readers the victim as who he or she was. "If you do it politely and with some class, you get some cooperation," he said.

Each reporter has his or her own approach, Gavrilovich from the Detroit Free Press, says. "I think you always have to put yourself in the position of the person. The smarter the person it the more they understand their rights. Someone not as worldly may view the reporter as an authority figure. It's only fair that we tell them they don't have to answer our questions. I think that makes me honest. I don't think I could live with myself it I look advantage of someone."

Gavrilovich has stood up the rights of victims on many occasions by refusing to interview them immediately after a traumatic incident. In 1977, he recalled a kidnapping situation that ended in the murder of the victim one block from her home. His superiors asked him to be at her family's home when they returned from identifying the body. He refused to do so. When troops were sent to Lebanon and some Marines were killed, as the editor of the world news, he voted against sending reporters to the homes of their families before the military had informed families of the situation.

"I would like to see everyone living by the golden rule," Gavrilovich said. "Don't invade the privacy of people, just leave a card. Americans today are sensitive. If they don't get the tragic quote from the victim, I don't think they are going to be bummed out. I will always tell reporters to keep their distance and not force them to give information."

Journalists stress sensitivity in approach and reporting when working with victims. Acknowledging the pain of victims helps to build a better relationship with them as well. McWhirter lead a team of Time magazine journalists to Oklahoma to cover the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. He told all the reporters to dress as if they "were part of the mourning." He said it helped to convey a sense of professionalism and respect for their loss.

Ackerman-Haywood, of The Grand Rapids Press, also used caution when working in New York during the Trans World Airlines flight 800 crash in July 1996. She was assigned to call neighbors and relatives of the victims. "You can't fully prepare for the situation, but you can think about how you would react," she said. "Getting the story is important, but so are the people. If people are not interested at first, give them time think it over, leave your number, and don't push it."

Ochberg suggests that reporters understand grief when handling intense situations. "If they become emotional, managing that emotion becomes very important," he said. "Let them know you are aware of their tears, ask if they would like stop. By the time an interviewee has become emotional with you, they're into their story and you're hurting them unilaterally by stopping."

Another issue in dealing with victims is using sensitivity and discretion when writing the story. Many victims are appalled by the amount of graphic detail used to tell the story. It can disrespect the deceased or injured person's memory in the eyes of the family and friends.

"There is one camp that says publish as much as you can because you cause more harm withholding," McWhirter said. "The other side would say wait, 'Whose interest does it serve for people to know?'"

Bucqueroux recommends that journalists reread stories as if the person they are including graphic details about is their family member. "The question becomes what the details add to the story, how relevant and is it central to the story?" she asks.

In the case of former Clinton staff member Vince Foster, who committed suicide in 1993, Bucqueroux said there was no reason for the press to publish details of Foster's failing marriage. "In reality, what did the public really gain by hearing about marriage and family issues firsthand?" she asks. "Did the media scrutiny add to that family's burden compared to a private family going through the same thing? I'd say yes."

Graphic detail reporting only gets worse as more fame is involved, Bucqueroux says. With public figures, reporters often pay hospital officials and others for information about the figure's tragedy. "That's the price of fame in this culture, unfortunately," she said. "Once it turns into a celebrity-feeding frenzy, nothing is sacred."

The Lansing State Journal does not have a written policy on victims or including graphic details. "The more sensitive the story the more determination there will be on the effect of the victim," Osburn said. "We want to make sure we were being fair and complete."

As an editor, he has to be aware of how the details will effect the readers in his community. "You have to look at the market," he said. "Lansing is a conservative area and it doesn't play with our market."

Gavrilovich made reference to the Starr Report, which contained intimate details of incidents between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Many newspapers published the report without any censor. "We need to think about whom is going to read this," he said. "Our readers are not football players that need to ogle over the information. We go into people's homes. You invite us into your house."

Cordts recommends journalists remember common sense and decency. "You never, ever want somebody to point their finger at you and say, 'You mistreated me in my time of grief,'" he said. That hurts sources, the paper and the audience.

Ochberg's advice to journalists, whenever they are in doubt about how to behave and write a story that is inclusive without being intrusive, is to find a good story and evaluate it. "Look for stories in which this has been done sensitively and you can be inspired by the work," he said. "When ignorance and nervousness and bias creep into the telling of a trauma story, we all lose. When a victim's story is fully told, we all end up feeling enhanced."

Ochberg offers additional advice to journalists facing the feeding frenzies common in public figure news. He suggests journalists create a sanctuary of sensitive exchange - journalists need to talk to one another. This way, public figures will have time to grieve.

"Create a pool, get the facts out, respect the dignity and privacy of the person," Ochberg said. "Get a pure story instead of one contaminated by the publicity itself."

From the victim's perspective of journalist treatment of a tragedy, Cynthia McCue offers her own advice. She says journalists need to ask thoughtful questions. "One of the stupidest questions I've heard is, 'How do you feel?' How do you expect I feel?" she asks.

Additionally, she would like to see journalists put more thought into their approaches, by giving people time to grieve. "You've got to make a choice which kind of journalist you want to be," she said. "I know the story doesn't wait. But it wasn't a story to me. It was my son."