The Role of Victim Service Providers

Victim service providers can support victims of crime in a number of ways. They may serve as a “go-between or facilitator” for a reporter and a victim or help protect or shield victims from the media during trials or hearings. Victim advocates can help victims establish the parameters and conditions under which interviews will take place, assist the victim in preparing a statement, including reviewing the facts that can and cannot be released to the public, calm their fears, and be present when the actual interview is conducted. This support can help minimize the invasion of privacy felt by the victim, educate victims about their rights when dealing with the media and provide support to victims in their decision to work with the media. At the same time, service providers can help members of the media access victims who want to tell their story.

As a victim service provider, you will be guided by your own agency’s policies and procedures with respect to dealing with or speaking to the media, but this section can be used as a guide to accompany those policies. You can expect to receive calls from reporters who want to speak to a specific victim or who want to speak with the victim of a certain type of crime, preferably a “fresh face” or someone who has not been in the media before. Reporters often have a deadline and will want to speak to the survivor very quickly.

Keep in mind that reporters and journalists may be uncomfortable dealing with victims, even if they do not show it. Few people want to ask a grieving mother how she is feeling or approach someone after a traumatic event. Some may mask their insecurity or awkwardness with aggressive behaviour and thereby appear insensitive. As a service provider, you can help the journalist deal with victims in a more sensitive way.

Language

As a service provider, you are in a unique situation to educate the media about victims and how media coverage impacts victims which can make reporting more sensitive. Reporters do not intentionally try to insult or re-victimize crime victims, but may do so because so because of lack of knowledge. Most reporters and journalists are compassionate people who do not want to cause further harm. Language and the choice of words are important. For example, the use of the term accident can be offensive to victims of impaired drivers. It is not an accident if the offender chooses to drive after consuming alcohol, so the language used to report the crime should reflect what occurred, including descriptions like crash or manslaughter. A reporter must also be cautious of using language that implies that the accused is guilty of the crime before a conviction is entered. This may be hurtful to the victims.

Language is a significant issue. It can reinforce myths and stereotypes about victims, particularly sexual assault victims. As mentioned previously, terms like “hooker” and “kiddie porn” are dehumanizing and minimize the seriousness of crimes. Constant referrals to the victims of Robert Pickton as drug-addicted prostitutes or hookers insulted their families who loved them and valued them even though they struggled with some serious issues.

The representation of certain populations of victims by the media can also impact people’s understanding of the crime and its impact. Following the release of the Cornwall Inquiry report in December of 2009, reporter Barbara Kay, in an article for the National Post, criticized the media’s coverage of the report’s release because “even though all the victims relating to the 114 charges laid in Project Truth were boys and men, and even though in his 75-minute verbal statement Justice Glaude referenced “males” or “men” as those abused seventeen times, almost all references in all media were to “victims,” “the vulnerable,” “young people,” “children” and “youths.”7 The CBC referenced “men” as offenders, the abused only as “victims.” This coverage reinforces the myth that boys and men cannot be victims of sexualized violence in our society when official statistics show that 1 in 6 males are victims.

Support for victims prior to their interaction with the media

One of the key roles a service provider may be able to assist victims with is the decision to interact with the media at all. Important considerations may include: the victim’s safety, level of stress and trauma and any possible negative impacts of giving an interview before proceeding or going on the record8. For some victims, it will be an easy decision because they want to remain private, do not want to discuss the case or maybe they are simply shy. If a victim is struggling with the decision, they may ask you for advice. Obviously, subject to court orders, the decision is the victim’s but you can answer questions they may have and provide them with information that may help them decide one way or the other. Service providers should always respect the decision the victims make whether you agree or not. Making such decisions can significantly empower victims.

Most people have never dealt with the media before and crime victims may not understand that the media is not necessarily going to tell the story they want. First and foremost, victims must understand that speaking to the media is their choice and if they do not feel comfortable, they can say no.

It is important to highlight for victims that once they say yes to participating in a story or giving an interview, they relinquish control. They do not control what is written, what the headlines are, what comments of theirs will be used or aired or how the information is presented. Unfortunately, this is also true if they retain their privacy and do not speak to the media.

Victim service providers can offer basic tips to victims to help them prepare for media interviews. The following suggestions (from A News Media Guide for Victim Service Providers, 2009) can be augmented with tips based on their past personal experiences and knowledge of the specific news medium or reporter involved:

  • Relax and be yourself. Your level of personal comfort will improve your interview experience.
  • Be sincere and honest. Your personal credibility is your most important asset!
  • Know what you want to say. Be prepared with two or three key points you want to make and find a way to make them early in the interview. For example: “The one thing I really want to say is. . .,” or “My most important message is. . .” Return to those messages and repeat them in different forms whenever you can.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Think about the question, then think about your answer.
  • Keep your answers brief and succinct. You can follow a brief answer with more details, but make sure the most important information is conveyed first, simply and to the point. Consider preparing pithy quotes in advance.
  • Once you make your point, stop talking. Don’t worry about silence. It is not your job to fill it. Talking beyond your stopping point makes it harder to edit your quotes. It is also when many people say things they wish they hadn’t.
  • Send your messages. You can reinforce your key points by repeating them.
  • Listen to the entire question before answering it. Take the time needed to formulate your response. In broadcast interviews, overlapping your answer with the interviewer’s question can make it difficult for editors.
  • Make sure you know what is being asked. If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification.
  • Refuse politely. If an interviewer’s question makes you feel uncomfortable, simply say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question.”
  • Don’t overextend. If you don’t know the answer to a question, simply say so. If you feel you can’t respond, give a brief reason, such as, “I’ll be able to answer that once the jury reaches its verdict.”
  • Never say, “No comment.” You can say, “I’m unable to answer that question at this time” or “I don’t have enough information to fully address your question.”
  • Avoid going “off the record.” Simply assume that everything you say is “on the record” and speak accordingly.
  • Don’t interrupt the interviewer or other guests. Likewise, if you feel you are being interrupted, you can say, “If it’s okay, I’d like to finish what I was saying.”
  • Speak plainly. Avoid any jargon or acronyms that may be confusing to readers, listeners, or viewers.
  • Avoid distractions. Do not use hand gestures that may block your face or expressions that detract from the content of the interview. Don’t wear jangly or shiny jewelry to broadcast interviews or anything else that might make noise that microphones might pick up. Avoid tapping your fingers or your feet.
  • Correct errors or misperceptions. If inaccurate information is presented in the course of an interview, present the facts to correct it in a positive manner.
  • Avoid fatigue. If you need to take a break (except during live interviews), ask for one.
  • Don’t feel guilty about being human. Always remember that what happened to you was bad and is possibly distressing to you. It’s okay to show emotions during an interview.
  • Emphasize your story. Remember that you are speaking for yourself. It’s important to avoid making generalizations that appear to represent all victims.9

Support for victims during media interaction

If a victim/survivor has decided to do an interview or cooperate with the media, you may be able to provide valuable assistance. Some of the things you may do include:

  • Act as an intermediary between the reporter and a victim. You can help victims set parameters and conditions under which the interview will take place.
  • Limit the media’s exposure to the victim if this is what the victim wants.
  • Assist the victim in preparing a statement. If there is a trial or publication ban, it is important that the victim understand what they can and cannot say.

If a victim chooses to speak to the media, reinforce how they can assert some control over their interaction. It is okay for a victim to10:

  • Select a spokesperson or advocate to speak on their behalf;
  • Select the time and location for media interviews;
  • Request a specific reporter;
  • Refuse an interview with a specific reporter;
  • Say “no” to an interview even though they have previously granted interviews;
  • Release a written statement through a spokesperson in lieu of an interview;
  • Refrain from answering questions they feel are inappropriate;
  • Avoid a news conference and speak to only one reporter at a time;
  • Demand a correction when inaccurate information is reported;
  • Ask that offensive photographs or visuals be omitted from airing or publication;
  • Give a television interview with their image blurred or a newspaper interview without having their picture taken.

Support for victims after media interaction

Victims may decide to speak out for several reasons, but once the story is printed or aired, they may have several different reactions:

  • Satisfaction – The victim/survivor(s) is satisfied with the story the journalist did and glad they made the choice to participate. Even so, one interview with a journalist may lead to requests from other journalists now that the individual is perceived as being willing to speak to the media. If this is the case, remind the victim that they can say yes or no to any request. Victims are not bound to continue to speak out or to be available to the media in the near future or on a longer-term basis. The decision always remains with the victim.
  • Regret – The victim/survivor(s) may regret their decision to have cooperated with the media, either because the story was not presented in a way the victim agreed with or because they simply regret sharing their pain publicly. It may also upset other members of the family where they wish the victim would not be vocal or where there are multiple victims.
  • Unintended consequences arise – It is always a possibility that unintended consequences arise for the victim/survivor or other family members. In some cases, media coverage can reveal details that may not have been disclosed at a trial or after a plea agreement which can be very upsetting to family who were not aware.

Service providers should know that if the victim feels that the story contained false information or took the victim’s words out of context, he/she can file a formal complaint against a reporter with the media outlet.

  1. Barbara Kay, “Male victims need help too,” National Post, January 20, 2010, http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2010/01/20/barbara-kay-male-victims-need-help-too.aspx#ixzz19zxJGSe4
  2. Supra note 1 at 14.
  3. Supra note 1 at 58-59.
  4. Supra note 1 at 62-63.