The News Media's Coverage of Crime
The news media wield a "double-edged sword" in
their coverage of crime and victimization relevant to the "public's
right to know" versus "the victim's right to privacy."
Victim service providers play crucial roles in protecting victims'
privacy rights, and helping victims cope with media coverage immediately
following a crime, during the trial, and following verdicts. Advocates
must possess knowledge of who the media are, how they operate,
and victims' rights and needs pertinent to dealing with the media.
Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the
Crime in America is big news. According to a Media Monitor report published in January 1994, "The public is preoccupied with violent crime. The number of Americans naming crime as the nation's most important problem jumped six fold (from 5% to 31%) between June 1993 and January 1994 (according to Washington Post/ABC News polls) (Litter and Litter, 1994).
The public was hit with a wave of crime news in 1993, as a record number of crime stories reached the national TV audience. The three major networks aired nearly 1,700 crime stories that year, nearly five stories per night. Not only did overall crime news double from 1992 levels, but coverage of murder tripled, from 104 to 329 (Litter and Litter, 1994).
Media reporting of crime and victimization -- in both print and
broadcast formats -- has far-reaching effects on a number of populations
and special interests:
The American Public
The media play a significant role in public safety by keeping
citizens apprised of increases and decreases in crime, trends
in violence and victimization (that are specific to national,
state, local and even neighborhood targeted audiences), efforts
to prevent crime, reduce violence, and assist victims (including
new and existing programs, policies, and legislation), and measures
individuals and communities can take to promote safety.
The Criminal Justice System
Coverage of criminal justice system activities offers citizens an overview of the entire justice process, from law enforcement to prosecution through probation, parole and corrections. The news media's examination of individual cases has resulted in groundswells of public opinion and action that have, in many cases, ultimately changed the way our criminal justice system operates. In addition, the emergence of cameras in the courtroom and the Court TV network have expanded the American public's knowledge of the myriad intricacies that comprise our justice system.
The criminal justice system is also affected by its attempts to
preserve the sanctity of criminal cases and, in some cases, protect
victims' privacy. The espoused theory of the "public's right
to know" often puts the media in direct conflict with system
officials who believe that case confidentiality is essential to
obtaining criminal convictions.
The Media Profession
Over the past decade, coverage of crime and victimization has drastically changed. For example, in 1985, footage of bodies and/or body bags on national networks elicited organized outcries from victim advocates across the nation. Today, such footage is commonplace. The volatile issue of identifying victims of sexual assault in the media has been debated and analyzed from both victim advocacy and First Amendment perspectives, with little consensus from either side of the argument.
However, the past ten years have also witnessed an increase in media professionals who seek sensitivity training from crime victims and advocates so that they can accurately cover crime stories with the least amount of trauma to the victim. Today, crime victims and service providers offer training programs to newsrooms, professional journalism associations, and university-level journalism classes about media sensitivity in addressing violence and victimization.
Journalists who cover crime beats are also affected by the scope
and demands of their jobs. Those who cover the horror and degradation
of violence on a regular basis have few outlets for the personal
trauma they must endure. As such, there is high demand for a protocol
to "debrief" journalists whose assignments include regular
coverage of violence.
Victim Service Providers
The increase in the news media's coverage of crime and victimization
has resulted in a very specialized discipline within the field
of victim services: Advocating for crime victims whose cases are
covered by the news media. Training programs to help service providers
better work with the news media who cover crime and victimization,
as well as guidelines in media relations that help them enhance
their professional relationships with the news media, are regularly
offered at training conferences and as a component of victim service
The constituency most affected by the news media coverage of violence and victimization is crime victims. While sensitive coverage of victim's cases can be helpful and, in some cases, even healing, media coverage that is sometimes viewed as insensitive, voyeuristic and uncaring compounds victims' emotional and psychological suffering.
Most crime victims have never before dealt with the news media.
They are thrust, often unwillingly, into a limelight they do not
seek and do not enjoy solely because of the crimes committed against
them. Many victims describe the initial assault from the perpetrator,
a secondary assault from the criminal justice system, and a tertiary
assault at the hands of the news media. As ABC News and Political
Analyst Jeff Greenfield explained in 1986, "What weighs in
the scale is not simply the desire of a victim for privacy . .
. but the prospect of further victimization beyond the involuntary
thrust into the public arena. And this is something that the journalism
community must begin to consider in its daily business" (Greenfield,
The Major Concerns of Crime Victims
and Service Providers
In addition to privacy protections, the National Victim Center has identified 14 significant concerns that crime victims and service providers have in regards to the news media's coverage of crime and victimization (Seymour and Lowrance, 1988, pp. 5-7).
A 1992 study of homicide survivors found that 92% of respondents felt that "it is not appropriate for a television news reporter and camera crew to approach a grieving individual immediately following a death" (Fritz, 1992, p. 91). The feelings of many victims at the crisis stage following a crime were summed up by the mother of a murdered daughter:
"You're in such a state of shock, you're not thinking in terms of newspapers. . . .You're not prepared for this . . . I thought I'd come home by myself and cry my eyes out, but there already were 500 people waiting when I got home. We're not ready. We're numb. We don't know what's going on" (Grotta, 1986, p.10).
"I think at times we don't take into consideration what these people have been through. There is pressure there, someone breathing down your back to go out and get that story, get that interview. We should be more sensitive to these people's feelings. Sometimes I think we're a bit too aggressive" (Grotta, 1986, p. 7).
"There was no warning to the family that this was upcoming. You look up and there's his body. That's offensive. You can't be any more offensive than that" (Grotta, 1986, p. 7).
"When city editors get calls from the crime reporter, often the first question asked is 'Where did it happen?' The news team's reaction to the crime is often predicated on where the crime occurred. If it's at one of the projects in predominantly black and Hispanic West Dallas, we call in a brief; it's in white, fashionable University Park, we roll a reporter or two. That attitude is unlikely to change" (Sotomayer, 1987).
Such institutional biases can only be changed with continual training on cultural sensitivity, particularly as it relates to the coverage of crime.
A brochure published by the National Victim Center in 1987 entitled
"Victims' Rights and the Media" offers valuable guidelines
to crime victims whose cases are covered by print and broadcast
news media. While the "rights" enumerated in this brochure
are not mandated by statute or policy, they should be considered
guiding principles provided by all service providers to crime
victims prior to dealing with the news media:
You have the right:
The question of where a society's right to know ends and an individual's right to privacy begins is one of journalism's thorniest ethical dilemmas (Thomason and Babbili, 1988).
This double-edged sword has serious implications for victims and those who serve them. While the legal aspects relevant to the First Amendment are quite clear, ethical considerations that take into account the traumatic nature of victimization and related news coverage are much more complex.
There have been two precedent-setting decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court relevant to the privacy rights of crime victims.
In Florida Star v. B.J.F., a weekly newspaper in Jacksonville published a news article that identified the name of a sexual assault victim, violating its own policy of protecting the privacy of rape victims. The resulting appeals and ultimate High Court decision rendered in 1989 were summarized in a 1990 Mercer Law Review article:
In Florida Star v. B.J.F., the Supreme Court invalidated a Florida statute proscribing the newspaper publication of the identity of sexual assault victims. In making its determination, the Court balanced the state interest of protecting the privacy of assault victims against the first amendment concerns of the free press. The Court did not focus on the privacy right of the plaintiff as much as it considered the inability of the statute to achieve its desired goal. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found the Florida statute unconstitutional primarily because of its failure to protect the privacy of assault victims effectively without an impermissible intrusion on the first amendment freedom of the press (Hughes, 1990).
The constitutionality of a Georgia law that prohibited the identification of rape victims by the news media was called into question in a case involving a television station's reporting of the name of a deceased rape victim. When Cox Broadcasting Corporation v. Cohn was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice White noted in the affirming opinion that the "commission of crime, prosecutions resulting from it, and judicial proceedings arising from the prosecutions . . . are without question events of legitimate concern to the public and consequently fall within the responsibility of the press to report the operations of government" (Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 1975, p. 493).
There are several arguments adopted by journalists in support of identifying victims of crime and, in particular, victims of sexual assault and rape. First, the public's right to know any information that is part of public record (i.e. law enforcement or court documents) is frequently cited. Next, some journalists believe that, in the name of fairness and equity, the victim's identity should not be protected when the name of the alleged assailant is published or broadcast, particularly when the defendant is found not guilty. Finally, some journalists believe that identifying rape victims will somehow eliminate or reduce the stigma that is often associated with sexual assault.
However, research clearly shows that crime victims, service providers, and American women in general strongly support protecting the privacy of rape victims. Key findings from The National Women's Study, as reported in "Rape in America: A Report to the Nation," include the following:
Recent surveys of American newspaper editors have shown that most do not routinely publish the names of rape victims. In 1982, Oukrop reported that 68 percent of the editors she surveyed believed names of rape victims should not be published (Oukrop, 1982, p. 21). Wince (1991) surveyed editors in 1990 and found that 9.6 percent said rape victims should never be named; 39.6 percent said they should be named only with the victim's permission; and 43.6 percent said they should be named only in exceptional cases.
Furthermore, more news media today are addressing the issue of rape than ever before. In "Newspaper Coverage of Rape: Editors Still Reluctant to Name the Victim," the following data were revealed:
Clearly, the correlation between rape victims' fear of being identified
and the fact that only 16 percent of rapes are ever reported to
police should be a driving force behind the protection of the
privacy rights of all sexual assault victims. While legislation
mandating such protections has been held unconstitutional by the
U.S. Supreme Court, the news media should adopt policies that
protect rape victims' right to privacy as a basic ethical premise
of journalistic doctrine.
In 1988, the National Victim Center published a suggested code
of ethics for victim advocates in the media. With adherence to
these recommended guidelines (which have been updated in 1995),
victim advocates can ease the trauma of the news media's coverage
of crime and victims and, at the same time, assist the news media
in their attempts to focus public attention on crime in our nation:
I shall always:
I shall never:
Advocacy for crime victims in the media has become a specialized discipline within the field of victim advocacy. Victim service providers who assume this immense responsibility must:
Victim service providers should have a roster of key media in their community, which includes: contact name; address; telephone number; fax number; and e-mail address. A database that allows rapid distribution of information via fax, mail, or the Internet such as victim statements and press releases, is helpful.
It is helpful to also know which media professionals have provided
thorough, sensitive coverage of victims' cases, as well as those
who have been less sensitive or intrusive. If the victims asks
for recommendations on specific media who have contacted them,
this type of background information is useful.
In some cases, the victim service provider will be directly contacted by the victim or a family member or friend. In other cases, a telephone call to the victim, followed up with a personal note that provides the service provider's/agency's contact information for support and services (including media advocacy), is appropriate.
The role of the victim advocate in helping victims deal with the media may include but is not limited to the following activities:
Over the past decade, news media professionals have begun to examine
their roles in the coverage of crime and victimization. The "double-edged
sword" -- involving the victim's right to privacy versus
the public's right to know -- has been debated among journalists,
with such discussions often involving input and advice from victim
service providers. While levels of sensitivity to victims' rights
and needs continue to vary among journalists, news media today
more than ever are adhering to basic principles of fairness and
sensitivity that ultimately benefit victims of crime whose cases
Guiding Principles for the Journalist
There are three guiding principles for journalists that are particularly applicable to their coverage of crime and victimization (Black, Steele, and Barney, 1995).
A Media Code of Ethics
Victim service providers should encourage media professionals, both print and broadcast, to adopt a code of ethics specific to their coverage of crime and victimization. Such a code can serve as a basic ethical foundation from which difficult decisions -- frequently made in very short time periods -- can be made.
The most comprehensive written policy on ethical considerations affecting journalists, including those affecting crime victims, was developed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. In the sensitive introduction to its "Guidelines on Privacy Issues," the following guiding statement was made:
"As we consider the policies that will best serve the Post-Dispatch, we should bear in mind some broad principles:
The perceptions and perspectives of reporters and editors are on the one hand, and readers and other members of the public on the other, are different. The news professionals are motivated chiefly by a desire to get the news and publish it. The others are more likely to react personally, imagining how they would feel as the subject of a story. In weighing matters of privacy, perhaps some effort should be made to bring that personal perspective into the equation.
Major changes should be approached with caution. The wind may seem to be blowing very strongly in one direction today, but could shift direction tomorrow.
No policy will cover every eventuality. The policy here enunciated (in the Guidelines on Privacy Issues) includes many exceptions, and must be augmented by the constant application of fairness, common sense, reasoned Judgment, and a degree of compassion by reporters and editors all along the line" (Guidelines on Privacy Issues, 1992).
When victim advocates consider proposing a code of ethics to media
professionals, the following issues should be seriously considered.
The news media should:
Worksheet # 1 Chapter 22
Who Are the Media?
Worksheet # 2 Chapter 22
The Media Hierarchy
Victim service providers most often will deal with a reporter
from a print or broadcast news medium. However, in the newsroom,
the reporter's place is on the lower end of the hierarchy, with
many senior officials often responsible for key decisions affecting
the coverage of crime and victimization.
The following depicts the hierarchy of the newsrooms of both newspapers
and broadcast (radio and television) media (which may vary depending
on the personnel and policies of a specific medium).
If victims or advocates are not happy with the media's coverage
of a crime or of an issue, they can appeal through the various
levels of hierarchy in the media's organization. Ultimately, who
has significant influence over each medium -- print and broadcast?
Fill in the blank for each.
Other journalists who may affect how stories of crime and victimization
are covered, or with whom service providers may have contact,
Worksheet # 1 Chapter 22
Who Are the Media?
ALLIED PROFESSIONAL PUBLICATIONS
INTERNET ACCESS TO ALL OF THE ABOVE
T.V. TALK SHOWS
T.V. TABLOID SHOWS
T.V. EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING
T.V. ENTERTAINMENT PROGRAMMING
RADIO TALK SHOWS
FILMS (FEATURE AND DOCUMENTARY)
INTERNET ACCESS TO ALL OF THE ABOVE
Black, J., Steele, B., & Barney, R. (1995). Doing ethics
in journalism: A handbook with case studies (2nd ed.).
Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn. (1975). 420 U.S. 469, p. 493.
Fritz, K. L. (1992). Television news coverage of tragic death
and the grieving: Does It affect the bereavement process of the
survivor?. Western Illinois University Department of Communications
Arts and Sciences.
Greenfield, J. (1986). TV: The medium determines impact of crime
stories. Crime Victims & the News Media. Fort Worth,
TX: Texas Christian University.
Grotta, G. R. (1986). Crime victims and the news media pilot
survey. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University.
Guidelines on privacy issues. (1992). St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hughes, K. W. (1990). Florida Star v. B. J. F.: Can the State
regulate the press in the interest of protecting the privacy of
rape victims?. Mercer Law Review.
Kilpatrick, D., Edmunds, C. & Seymour, A. (1992) Rape in America:
A Report to the Nation. The National Women's Study. Charleston,
SC: Medical University of South Carolina National Crime Victims
Research and Arlington, VA: Treatment Center and National Victim
Litter, S. R. & Litter, L. S. (Eds.). (1994, January/February).
1993 - The year in review: TV's leading news topics, reporters,
and political jokes. Media Monitor. Washington, DC: Center
for Media and Public Affairs.
Oukrop, C. E. (1982). Views of newspaper gatekeepers on rape
ad rape coverage. Manhattan, KS: Kansas City University.
Seymour, A., & Lowrance, L. (1988). Crime victims and the
news media. Fort Worth, TX: National Victim Center.
Sotomayer, E. (1987). A victim's race: Does it make a difference?.
Crime Victims and the News Media. Fort Worth, TX: Texas
Thomason, T. & Babbili, A. (1988). American media and crime victims: Covering private individuals in the public spotlight. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University.
Winch, S. P. (1991). On naming rape victims: How editors stand
on the issue. Paper presented at the national convention of
AEJMC, Minneapolis, MN).
Thomason, T. & LaRocque, P. (1994). Newspaper Coverage
of Rape: Editors Still Reluctant to Name the Victim. Fort
Worth, TX: Texas Christian University.
Back to NVAA