The media is a powerful tool that can make someone famous on one day and destroy their reputation the next. It can make people care about an issue, influence how people think about a problem, and impact how the government does, or does not, deal with those issues and problems.
Crime coverage has always been given heavy consideration in the media. The common saying, “if it bleeds, it leads”, applies directly to the attention that is given to crime, particularly violent crime. In fact, the crimes that the media covers are often the least common types of crimes committed, such as homicide, and because of this the media can give the public a distorted view of the real picture of crime in Canada. Victim availability to comment on a story also influences the media’s ability to cover crime and violence. For example, it is very rare that a victim of domestic violence is willing to speak to the media, due to the dynamics of the relationship they have with their abuser. Likewise, there are publication bans that prohibit victims of sexualized violence from speaking to the media.
Covering crime means covering victims, often directly or indirectly. How the media covers crime can impact crime victims. What the media says, how the media says it, and if the media says anything can all have a positive or negative impact on victims and their families, and their experience of the criminal justice process.
Reporters and journalists are rarely experts in criminal justice. Often, they are covering a variety of issues and may not know very much about any of them. This gives experts, like victim service providers, an opportunity to educate members of the media, but it may also increase the likelihood that myths and misconceptions about victims and victimization can be reported as fact.
Benefits of media coverage
There are several benefits to society that occur when the media provides responsible coverage of crime and victims. The media can1:
- Educate the public about victimization issues;
- Present the facts of a criminal case;
- Provide information about trends in crime and victimization, nature and frequency of crime, etc;
- Provide information about new types of crime, for example, Internet crimes, that the public should be aware of;
- Provide coverage of government legislation, policy development or initiatives that deal with crime and/or victims;
- Help shape public opinion about important issues, such as funding for victim support programs, victims’ rights, etc.;
- Explain the impact of crime victims and their families, which may assist people in dealing with victims they may know;
- Provide an outlet for victims and their families to tell their own story;
- Provide accurate information about confusing subjects, such as the criminal justice system, the parole system, etc;
- Quash rumours and eliminate fear;
- Provide safety and prevention information; and
- Raise awareness about victim support groups and programs – this can benefit groups that rely on private funding and also victims who may be in need of assistance.
Victims may be approached by media in the immediate aftermath of a crime, during criminal proceedings such as trials or parole hearings, at anniversaries, while the media is covering a story on a similar crime, or when the government introduces a legislative initiative. Victims, especially in the immediate aftermath of the crime, may not know what their rights or what they can or cannot ask of the media. A lot of people feel obliged to answer when a microphone is put in their face and a question is asked.
As a victim services provider, you may be called upon to answer questions from victims about the media and asked to support victims in their interaction with the media. Members of the media may also call upon you to help find a victim who is willing to tell his or her story. You may be interviewed about your service, issues related to victims in general or a specific case. The media can be an important partner for victim services agencies, in helping to convey the needs and messages of victims. If they call, you may have to balance a victim’s privacy and well-being, the importance of educating the public about victim issues and helping the media portray victims in an appropriate way, despite how you may feel about how they have historically portrayed victims and their concerns. To do that, you must understand how the media works and how victims and the media interact.
- Anne Seymour and Bonnie Bucqueroux, A News Media Guide for Victim Service Providers, (Washington D.C., Justice Solutions NPO, 2009), http://www.victimprovidersmediaguide.com, (accessed [5 September 2010]), p.13.