Media Insensitivity to Victims of Violence

By Carter, Sue | USA TODAY, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Media Insensitivity to Victims of Violence

Carter, Sue, USA TODAY

"Coverage of crime brings with it coverage of victims, frequently in dehumanizing ways and with traumatizing results."

WATCHING THE STUDENTS who survived the Columbine High School massacre in Littteon, Colo., as they told their stories on television drove home the horror that these youngsters endured. At the same time, the saturation coverage seemed to ratchet broadcast crime coverage to a new level of intense focus on victims and their trauma. Viewers found themselves cast as unwitting voyeurs--witnessing more personal pain than they should be allowed to see.

During the first chaotic day of the incident, most broadcasts featured endlessly repeated closeups of a teenage girl choking out her account of what it was like to be under siege by her peers. Succeeding days offered a relentless succession of children recounting the terrifying details of a tragedy they barely had a chance to assimilate.

While it may be important for the media to report on violence without unduly sanitizing its impact on victims, there were times that the Colorado coverage intruded on what should have been private moments. Insensitive questions from reporters undoubtedly made these youngsters' worst days even more painful. As therapist Janna Malamud Smith wrote on The New York Times' Op-Ed page the Sunday after the event, "It's worrisome that these already injured students, apparently seeking comfort and attention, can be exploited for ratings."

The Columbine incident is merely the latest example of the explosion in crime coverage. Yet, it may also be a precursor of a new era of a media focus on victims that threatens to put them at even greater risk of a "second wound"--the additional trauma inflicted by insensitive and intrusive coverage.

Even as the rates of violent crime continue to decline, the percentage of news coverage devoted to it is climbing. According to George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications, Temple University, television networks doubled the time devoted to crime coverage between 1992 and 1993. "Moreover, TV Guide's August 13, 1994, survey showed a steep increase in stories of violence, especially in local television news."

In the last three years, studies conducted by the University of Miami and the Project on Media Ownership, a research center affiliated with New York University, have underscored disproportionate crime coverage. The latter research concentrated on Baltimore TV stations and found that nearly 40% of the average 30-minute news program was devoted to crime. An examination of 17,000 local news stories broadcast during a three-month period in 1996 showed that crime is the most commonly reported category, accounting for 20% of local newscasts. Other national surveys indicate that crime occupies one-quarter of the available local news time.

The trend to more crime coverage is repeated at the national level as well. The proliferation of, and competition among, the cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, as well as the increase in primetime hours devoted to newsmagazine shows on network TV, add to the shift toward crime coverage as a top category of legitimate news. Literally hundreds of producers are scouring the country looking for victims of violence willing to talk about what happened to them. The ones who show emotion tend to receive the repeat offers, and they may be asked to appear again when a similar incident happens. Even newspapers such as The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, which previously shied away from crime coverage, now routinely include them in their pages.

New, too, is increased reporting on the previously "hidden" crimes of domestic violence and offenses against children. "The press also is reporting in detail on sex crimes, once a taboo topic seen darkly if at all," indicates Michael Kirkhom, who spent 14 years as an editor and columnist for five newspapers. He further notes that victim coverage is now "dramatized," perceived as a means of educating the public about the impact of violence on its victims. …

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