Victims and the media

Timely and sensitive coverage of victims’ cases can be helpful, particularly in emergency situations where the public needs to be made aware of the abduction of a missing child or needs information on emergency crisis services after a disaster. Coverage of specific cases and emerging crimes, such as Internet crimes against children, can contribute to positive changes in public policy. Media coverage can also change public attitudes about the crimes such as impaired driving and sexual assault.

The media can help humanize a victim and their experiences when the criminal justice system is so focused on the offender and the crime. It can help someone tell their story of resilience and hope. It may provide an avenue for a family to talk about their loved one who was killed, or give someone a platform to advocate for social change or justice reforms. More than anything perhaps, reporters want to speak to the person harmed because it is their goal to tell stories about people, to humanize them. Victim service providers can help support victims who are emotionally ready to do so in speaking out so that their stories will be told accurately in the media.

Negative aspects of media coverage on victims

There can be several negative aspects of the media coverage of crime and victims. Inaccurate information can shape public opinion and government policies. For example, obsessive coverage of violence of young people as offenders downplays the fact that they are the group most likely to experience victimization. Many people believe that women are most likely to be murdered, but it is men who make up 75% of homicide victims in Canada each year.

Media coverage can re-victimize victims, especially if overly sensational or inaccurate. It can reinforce misconceptions and myths about crime victims. By focusing on the sensational, high-profile crimes, coverage ignores other victims who may also want/need to tell their stories, but are denied because their stories are less compelling.

Loss of control

One of the struggles for crime victims to deal with in the aftermath of a crime is the loss of control. This can be seen in all types of violent crime, for example, when an offender breaks into a home, when a life is threatened or when someone is injured by an impaired driver. If the victim reports the crime, the criminal justice system takes over and the victim has little control over that process or its outcome.

The media controls what crimes are reported and what is said about those crimes and victims, especially if the victim chooses not go on record about their case. This is yet another aspect of their victimization that many victims have little control over. They do not have a choice if their face is on the front page of the paper (with exceptions related to publication bans which will be addressed later), whether their home will be on the evening news or whether radio talk show hosts will talk about them. If they do chose to participate in the process and are interviewed by members of the media, they cannot control how much of their interview will be printed in the newspaper, what the headline of the story will be, or how a television interview will be edited to be part of a narrative the reporter already had in mind. There may be cases where the victim can set terms in an exclusive interview, controlling the location/length/questions answered in an interview, but they will not have approval over what is ultimately published.

Possible negative impacts to consider

The manner in which a story is presented in the media or the fact that a crime is not covered at all can unintentionally inflict secondary victimization upon crime victims or survivors by exacerbating victims’ feelings of violation, disorientation, and loss of control. Some may feel humiliated by the community knowing what has happened to them, or made to feel insignificant by the lack of coverage. Some other concerns victims express about the media include5:

  • Interviews at inappropriate times. Media interest is at its highest level (for example, immediately after a crime, during the trial, etc.) at times when victims may feel numb, confused or most vulnerable;
  • Filming and photographing scenes with bodies and body bags;
  • Searching for the negatives about the victim;
  • Intimating that the victim contributed to his or her victimization;
  • Printing a victim’s name or address;
  • Printing things said about the victim during the court process that a family may not believe is accurate;
  • Publishing of photos. Victims may have their photos taken at the scene of a crime, a funeral or a courthouse without their knowledge. The media does not need permission to use these photos. Victims may feel this is an invasion of their privacy but the media may feel the image is dramatic and humanizes their story;
  • Aggressive or insensitive reporters or journalists may impact a victim’s ability to grieve with dignity and their personal safety.
  • Inappropriately delving into the victim’s past.

Some victims may feel their privacy is being violated, not understanding that the information is available in the public domain, allowing the media to freely report it. While most provinces have a Victims’ Bill of Rights and one of the identified issues is the protection of the victim’s privacy, the legislation is focused on actors in the criminal justice system, not private individuals or private entities.

Gaps in coverage

Due to the choices media managers make about which crimes to report or not, their interaction with victims is limited to certain crimes and certain types of victims. Victims also make choices to guard their privacy (which is absolutely their right), thus the media only has access to certain types of victims. Official crime statistics in Canada consistently show that less than half of all victims of crime, including victims of violent crime, report their victimization to the police. It is therefore unlikely that the media will interact with certain types of victims, particularly sexual assault victims, domestic violence victims, victims of simple assaults and victims of property crimes whose crimes often do not come to the attention of the police/courts.

Crimes that are reported but are unlikely to garner any media attention include break and enter, theft, common assault, etc. These crimes make up the majority of crimes reported to the police in Canada, yet unless the crime has some kind of unusual element to it (for example, fraud cases which involve large amounts of money, break and enter that involved violence to a family, etc.), the media is not likely to interact with victims of these offences.

The geographic location will also play a role in the amount of coverage that a crime receives. Dwindling media resources make it virtually impossible for all crimes to be covered, especially if they occur in remote or rural locations. Many media outlets do not have the resources to have reporters travelling great distances to cover crimes. They are far more likely to cover similar events in urban centres.

Of the small number of victims that are therefore available and of interest to the media, many choose not to speak to the media. This further limits the coverage of events, leading to gaps in the reporting of some events, and others being disregarded completely by the media.

Victims/survivors react differently

Media involvement can impact different victims in different ways. While Canada is fortunate to experience relatively few homicides, most cases do receive some level of media coverage because they are rare events. In some cases, certain victims will get more coverage than others, generally because the case is more shocking or sensational. The media will pick and choose which victims get the most coverage and the most sympathetic coverage depending on characteristics of the victim, of the crime and of the offender. The abduction and murder of an attractive young girl by a paroled sex offender will get front page coverage at the time it occurs, during the trial, during the parole hearings, etc., but the stabbing of a young man by another man may get very little coverage.

For families, this is not easy to understand. They may, if the coverage is vast, feel violated by the endless coverage and rehashing of the details of their child’s murder and intrusions into their privacy. In cases where there is limited or no coverage, families may wonder why their loved one was not important to garner more public interest and sympathy.

Intensity of media coverage

The media can be a concern for all crime victims, but the high-profile nature of terrorist attacks or other extreme forms of victimization can increase the impact on victims. Intense and prolonged media exposure and the visual replaying of the traumatic event or attack make re-traumatization a concern as victims are routinely exposed to traumatic stressors. The fear that many victims feel in the aftermath of an event may be reinforced by excessive media coverage, which the terrorists rely on. Intense media coverage can maintain the terror long after the event itself.

Reporting all the facts

The media may report facts about a case or about a crime that the victim and/or his/her family are unaware of. A news story may describe a sexual assault and report details that the victim’s parents were not aware of because the victim had not wanted them to know. Members of a family of a murder victim may hear about how their loved one died from the news media, not from the authorities. Service providers should note that coverage of a crime, even years later, can have a devastating impact on certain family members while others from within the same family want or seek the coverage. For example, the daughter of a woman murdered fifteen years ago by her partner discovered how her mother was killed when the killer came up for parole. Other members of the family had not told her the details because she was too young at the time. When the offender became eligible for parole, he was required to speak in great detail about the offence and a member of the media reported it. While the murder victim’s sister wanted the media coverage for public safety reasons, the young woman whose mother was murdered became the subject of teasing and bullying in her high school because her secret was out.

Sexual assault

News coverage involving sexual assault cases may be among the most difficult for victims. Although society has come a long way in how it perceives sexual assault, many myths about sexual assault are still widely believed in society. For example:

  • Most women are sexually assaulted by strangers;
  • The extent of a woman’s resistance should be the major factor in determining if a sexual assault has occurred;
  • Women may be partly responsible for the assault if she is out alone at night, is drunk or dressed provocatively; and
  • Women lie about being sexually assaulted.

When myths about crime are perpetuated in the media, it can have traumatic consequences on victims and their surviving family members, as well as impact negatively on a victim’s efforts to reconstruct his or her life following a crime. Even when myths are not explicitly stated, language is important. If the reporter writes or states, “The complainant was walking home alone at night from a bar” or “the complainant could not recall some details because she was intoxicated.” Arguably, the reporter may be presenting the facts (as presented in court) but the implication, which may be unintentional, is that if she had taken a taxi or had not been drinking, she would not have been sexually assaulted.

The danger of some reporting is that it may blame the victim for his or her own victimization. The sexual assault victim who was intoxicated may feel blamed for her victimization instead of what happened being seen solely as the responsibility of the offender who abused someone who unable to consent. The parents of a young person who was involved in the sex trade may feel that the public thinks their child deserved it, or was less important than the middle class schoolgirl who was assaulted the week before.

Innocence

Some victims are seen as more innocent than others. Victims of terrorism, for example, are rarely blamed for their victimization. The victims of September 11th, 2001, were simply going about their regular daily routines like going to work when they were killed. The nature of terrorist attacks is to attack innocent people. Children are also often seen as innocent, although the nature of the crimes against them can often be minimized by offenders and the media.

Children

Crimes involving photos taken of children being sexually assaulted are often referred to as kiddie porn or child porn by the media, neither of which reflects the significant harm done to the victims. In 2007, in a special report entitled Reinforcing the International Fight Against Child Pornography, prepared by the G8 Justice and Home Affairs Ministers noted that the term child pornography “does not appropriately or adequately describe the severe abuse and exploitation of children that is involved in these visual representations.” The term “pornography”, as is used in the Criminal Code is commonly understood to be associated with depictions of sexual activity between consenting individuals. Children cannot consent to sexual relations.

Cultural considerations

Although there has been very limited research on the impact of media coverage on crime victims from different cultures, issues such as privacy and traditions may be relevant. When a crime occurs, some victims want complete privacy while others are comfortable talking about their victimization and want their loved one honoured and to have the crime reported to their community. Cultural heritage and traditions may play a role in the decisions a victim makes. Some victims might never consider speaking to the media due to a strong mistrust, based solely on tradition. In other cultures, it is not acceptable to seek comfort, help grieving or dealing with victimization outside of the family unit. Also, crime may bring shame to a family within their own cultural community and thus individuals/families may not want any of their extended family or neighbours to learn about it. Women in some cultures may be blamed if they are sexually assaulted. Others still may be made to feel insignificant if their victimization is not shared with the community.

Victims/survivors are a diverse group who will all respond and react differently to media coverage based on their unique world view. For example, a First Nations mother whose brother molested her two young daughters may be upset that the media revealed his name in the coverage (thereby indirectly revealing the identity of her daughters), but at the same time want him to get help and not go to prison.

Coverage of minorities

Victim services professionals should recognize that societal biases are sometimes reflected in news reporting. The length of news copy and scope of broadcast coverage tend to vary based upon the victim’s race, where they live, socioeconomic status, and other factors that have nothing to do with the crime committed against them6. It is also important to note that historically, Canadian newspapers have few visible minorities working for them.

Data from research conducted in 1993 reveals that in 41 daily newsrooms surveyed across Canada, there are 2,620 professional journalists (supervisors, reporters, photographers, artists and copy editors). Only 67 are nonwhite. That’s 2.6 per cent, or five times less than the percentage of non-whites in the Canadian population. Just four native Canadian journalists and 16 blacks work in those newsrooms (Miller, 1994).

Fairness is essential in the depiction of minorities or others who do not hold positions of power or wealth in society. When the personnel employed by newspapers do not reflect the diversity of society, the danger arises that certain groups may be stereotyped or ignored completely.

According to the Media Awareness Network, news coverage of Native people seems to centre on political and constitutional issues, forest fires, poverty and substance or sexual abuse. In a 2000 study by York University professors Frances Henry and Carol Tator, journalistic bias in Aboriginal-related reporting was documented in relation to the Jack Ramsay case. A former RCMP officer and Reform Party MP, Ramsay was accused and convicted of the attempted sexual assault in 1969 of a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl. Henry and Tator’s research revealed that media articles focused overwhelmingly on the girl’s alcoholic and abusive parents, her impoverished childhood, and her own bouts with alcohol and drugs. By contrast, the review of Ramsay was more sympathetic. It focused on his career, his service to the community, and his supportive family. Henry and Tator contend that such biased coverage served to enlist support for Ramsay, and to minimize the charges against him (Media Awareness Network, 2010: p.1). Service workers who are assisting and supporting Aboriginal victims and survivors should be very aware of the possibility of media coverage that lacks sensitive or respectful coverage of Aboriginal victimization.

Supporting victims from different cultural backgrounds

Victim-serving agencies must endeavor to provide culturally sensitive assistance and support to survivors. There may be agencies within your community where your staff can access cultural sensitivity training because it is not always possible to hire additional staff to reflect the diversity of your community. It is also important to speak to all clients about the possibility of media coverage if you suspect there will be interest in the case. You should seek and respect their wishes but also try to sensitively explain to them why the media may (or may not) be interested; what they can expect; how they should deal with the media even if they do not wish to cooperate, etc. The more information you can provide, especially if the information is not necessarily positive, the better prepared the victim will be.

Social media – positive or negative?

Social media in all its forms are becoming more widely used by both victims and service providers in getting messages about crime and victimization out to the general public. There are many potential negatives of social media that victims of crime and service providers should be wary of.

  • Loss of privacy – once victims of crime put their personal information onto the Internet it is forever in the public domain and can be used and accessed by anyone.
  • Victims should refrain from making public comments on personal sites about a case before or during a trial and especially where a publication ban exists.
  • The Internet turns every person into a news publisher. These individuals don’t necessarily adhere to the standards and training of professional journalists.
  • Opinion is prevalent on the web – not necessarily the truth.
  • Harmful posts and videos can be placed on the Internet at any time.
  • People tend to believe what is posted on the Internet, never mind the source or reliability.
  • Falsehoods can be made about both victims and offenders.
  • Victims can learn devastating things about their loved ones or others who have been similarly victimized.
  • Both victims and service providers can be misquoted and misrepresented.
  • Many sites have millions/billions of members and they rely on self-policing to keep the site relatively free of illegal or improper postings. Objectionable material is relatively easy to find and can take some amount of time to get addressed by site administrators.

While there are many negatives associated with the internet and social media, it can also be a positive outlet for victims and survivors, as well as for victim-serving agencies. More and more, crime victims are turning to social media to get their stories out to the public and to keep them in the public eye. They use personal websites, blogs, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to garner support for their causes and to advocate for change to the criminal justice system. Others victims use social media to search for an answer to a mystery such as who killed their loved one or to find missing loved ones. Service providers are using the internet and social media as a tool to increase awareness of victims’ issues and to promote their work.

  1. Victims of Violence. (2008). Media and the Criminal Justice System. Accessed online January 18, 2011: http://www.victimsofviolence.on.ca/rev2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=352&Itemid=42
  2. Office for Victims of Crime. (2002). Seymour, Anne; Murray, Morna; Sigmon, Jane; Hook, Melissa; Edmunds, Christine; Gaboury, Mario; and Coleman, Grace (Eds). National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook. Accessed online December 18, 2010: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/assist/nvaa2002/chapter18.html