Ethical Considerations

While criminal justice system officials like police and Crown Attorneys are bound by strict legal, ethical and professional guidelines, the mass media is not. Professional journalists are bound by the rules of their employers and court orders, but unless it involves criminal behaviour there are few rules by which the media is limited.

Ethics for media

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has developed a Statement of Principles and Ethical Guidelines which was passed in 2002. The Statement places priority on freedom of speech and the role it provides in a democratic society. The following excerpts are taken from the website of the CAJ.11 The Preamble highlights the “duty to seek and report the truth as we understand it, defend free speech and the right to equal treatment under law, capture the diversity of human experience, speak for the voiceless and encourage civic debate to build our communities and serve the public interest.” Specifically, principles such as freedom of speech, fairness and diversity are emphasized, as is the right to privacy. “…People also have a right to privacy and those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial. There are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, the public good and the public’s right to be informed. Each situation should be judged in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s rights to know.”

More specifically, when it comes to privacy, the CAJ believes “Individuals have a right to privacy except when that right is superseded by the public good. CAJ says members should “not harass or manipulate people who are thrust into the spotlight because they are victims of crime or are associated with a tragedy.”

When reporting about crime and victimization, victim advocates in Canada have long called upon the mass media to do so in a particularly respectful and compassionate manner. Minimizing harm should be the focus of reporting although it cannot be eliminated completely. Bob Steele, of the Poytner Institute in Florida, is a leader in promoting ethics in journalism. He states, “Asking victims to share their stories, especially if it is soon after their victimization, will almost always take a toll.” Steele argues the benefit to the victim and the public may outweigh the damage. He places the burden upon the journalist to do all he/she can to avoid causing victims undue pain12.

For service providers, most ethical questions should be determined by the policies and procedures of your organization, and any applicable privacy laws. In some cases, service providers are simply not permitted to speak to the media about clients. Psychologists, victim compensation staff, court-based victim-witness assistance staff and police-based crisis staff, for example, are generally not permitted to speak to the media (although there may be managers available to speak in a more general way about victim related issues). Community agencies may be more active in supporting victims in their dealings with the media and speaking to the media on behalf of victims. Groups that do advocacy work on behalf of victims may be very pro-active in working with the media.

Service providers must always follow the guidelines of their agency. In addition, the following tips may be of assistance to you if and when you interact with the media regarding a client (as opposed to general victim issues); facilitate interaction between a victim and the media or speak on behalf of a client:

  • The victim’s best interest must always be your priority;
  • You should support the victim’s choices;
  • Privacy and confidentiality can only be waived by the victim and should be done in writing;
  • Only provide contact information to a media contact if you have the express consent of the victim – it is preferable to provide the reporter’s contact information to the victim;
  • Speak with the victim in advance to ensure you do not provide any more personal information than they have agreed to after being given time to consider the implications;
  • If you are not comfortable answering a question, tell the reporter you cannot answer that question until you have spoken to your client. If the interview is live, say you do not know the answer to that question or do not have that information or you are not able to share that information and if possible, stress a point you made earlier or that is particularly important to the client. For example, if the reporter asks if it is true that the victim was drunk at the time of the incident, you may say, “I am not sure how that is relevant to their victimization” or “Those are issues that will be discussed at trial so I cannot speak to them at this time, but I can tell you this incident has had a tremendous impact on my client’s well-being.”

Risks of speaking to the media

For some victims, the trauma of victimization can be compounded by speaking publicly about their experiences in the aftermath of a crime and it is important for all service providers to consider this. It takes time to cope with the shock and trauma of being victimized and to participate in criminal investigations and justice processes. The detrimental mental health consequences of victimization are well documented. Media coverage in the wake of a crime can result in a “secondary victimization” that may exacerbate victims’ trauma and cause unnecessary additional harm. The shame that some victims feel, as well as the blame they sometimes feel from others, can be increased by untimely, inappropriate, or intrusive reporting13.

Other risks:

  • Victims may also feel a tremendous let down when the media goes away. In the immediate aftermath of the crime, the media are constantly present and the victim’s story may be in the headlines. Eventually other news begins to take precedence and victims may feel abandoned and alone.
  • It can take an emotional toll on victims to be called upon over and over by the media at sensitive and stressful times, such as when the trial begins, at sentencing, on anniversaries or at parole hearings for the offender. Other family members may not be supportive of their efforts to keep the story in the news.
  • In some cases, victims are very private and do not wish to speak with the media at all, but they simply cannot escape the coverage of their case because it is so high-profile (for example, coverage of the murder of Jane Creba in Toronto on Boxing Day in 2005).
  • A lack of media for victims who want more attention but who do not fit the media’s definition of the “ideal” victim, for example, there tends to be more media when a young, pretty white girl goes missing than when a non-white, boy goes missing.
  1. The Canadian Association of Journalists. (2002). Statement of principles and ethical guidelines. (Ottawa, ON), http://www.caj.ca/?p=20, Accessed 15 November 2010.
  2. Supra note 1 at 32.
  3. Supra note 1 at 19.