High Profile Cases

High-profile cases are among the most difficult for both victims/survivors and for service providers. These are the cases that attract a lot of media attention, often because of the unique or bizarre nature of the crime, the victim(s) or the offender(s). A case can be high-profile within a particular community, to the entire country or even internationally. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish how one case becomes so high-profile while another, equally tragic case, does not. The Natalee Holloway case is a good example. Ms. Holloway, a US citizen, disappeared while on a trip to Aruba and to date, her body has not been found. Her case became an international story and reporters from around the world reported on the case for months. Every development in the case was reported on. At the same time there were other cases of Americans who went missing while visiting other countries and their cases did not receive near the same level of attention. Every year thousands of American teenagers go missing in the US and their cases get little media attention.

The media obsession with Ms. Holloway’s disappearance cannot be attributed to any one thing. She was a white, attractive, female who came from a middle class family. Her body was never found. Her parents actively pursued media to increase the chances that people would call in tips and they would find out what happened to her. The person suspected of killing her is a judge’s son. Yet, none of this adequately explains the media’s obsession with her case, other than the parents’ openness encouraged the media to talk to them and report on the case.

Ultimately, the case was made high-profile at the choice of the media. High-profile cases in Canada include the murders committed by Clifford Olson, Marc Lépine, Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, and most recently, Russell Williams. Each of these cases included multiple victims, but there are other killers who have murdered more than one person who do not garner the same attention. Another common factor is that none of the killers knew their victims. Stranger crimes are more likely to be high-profile than cases involving victims and offenders who know each other.

These are some factors that may elevate a case to high-profile status:

  • The victim an attractive, white, middle class female;
  • The offender is a “regular” guy; not someone who people would suspect could commit this kind of crime;
  • There are multiple victims;
  • The violence was excessive; of a sexual nature;
  • The offender was a stranger to the victim;
  • The victim was missing for a while before being found; and
  • The offender or the victim, or someone closely associated with them, are previously known in the media.

Cases involving children are often high-profile cases but again, crimes committed against children by strangers are more likely to be high-profile cases than those committed by family members. When a child is abducted by a stranger, the media interest is intense. The period that immediately follows the abduction is often characterized by intense media attention. This is essential because police need the public’s help to find the missing child. Stranger abductions impact people immediately. It is something that every parent fears happening, even though the odds are extremely low. These stories invoke feelings in the readers, listeners and viewers – fear for the abducted child and for our own, anger at the perpetrator, anger at a perceived lenient justice system, etc. The public tends to empathize and follow these stories and the media responds to that interest.

Arguably, the media also fuels the public’s interest because the 24-hour news cycles demand news even when there may not be any new developments in the case. To feed this demand, members of the media will often look back on other, similar high-profile cases, or bring in experts to comment on similar crimes. They run stories about how to protect your children. All of this feeds into the public’s perception that these crimes are more common than they actually are.

For the victim or the victim’s family, the media attention may be both a blessing and a curse. In the beginning, if the victim is missing, families want media attention as it may increase the chances that their loved one will be found. If the victim is found, dead or alive, the family may want their privacy back but the media may not be ready to stop reporting. The case may still be news – a suspect may be arrested, there may be court dates, the person’s past criminal history may be another angle, etc.

Regular media attention can be stressful enough for a family wanting their privacy but the intensity of a high-profile case that may have national appeal can be overwhelming. More so than in regular or lower profile cases, the media examines every angle in more detail than they normally would because they need to find something new to say when there might be little new happening. This might mean a closer look at the victim and his/her actions – in Natalee Holloway’s case, her alleged partying past came to light. Her mother, who admittedly courted the media’s attention in hopes of finding out what happened to her daughter, became an issue because she always seemed to be on the news. Her motives were questioned, as were her parenting decisions and family relationships.

For some victims, the media spotlight may be concerning or upsetting, but for others, it may be appealing. Media spotlight, when the coverage is favourable, is hard to resist – it makes one feel important, validated, and respected. In high-profile cases, victims or family members who make themselves available can become “celebrities”. There is a danger to this. Whether it is fair or not, people will question a victim’s motives for always appearing in the media. Even if the person’s motives are good – to speak for their loved one, to raise awareness about an issue, to educate the public – people will wonder why and they will assign motives. The media’s reporting may be seen as favourable one day, but then become negative the next. This is due in part to their presentation of all facts of the case as it progresses, including those that may be seen as negative by this victim.

If you have a good relationship with journalists covering the story, you may be able to educate them about the impact the intense coverage is having on the victim and their family, but it is unlikely that this will have much impact. Unless all the media outlets scaled back their coverage, one newspaper or TV station is unlikely to do so. In fact, you may give the journalist his next story or column. The media may examine its own coverage of these kinds of stories, while covering these stories, but this is one more way of filling the 24-hour news cycle.