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Victims and the Media

INTRODUCTION: THE CONTEXT AND PURPOSE OF MY DATA COLLECTION

My research over the next two years is aimed at establishing the effect the Media has on victims of crime.

My data pack has been put together to contain a mixture of documentation, my own experiences and some initial analysis of interviews and other matter. I would stress at this point that I have undertaken only preliminary analysis of much of the material as this is only the first stage of my research. I plan to follow my subject through my Master of Arts project.

My pack also includes a diversity of material which I describe and underline elsewhere as part of its introduction. My subject is a wide and involved one and I am coming across many strands which I intend to interpret. Again I discuss these strands under the Emerging Questions and Early Interpretations section of this document.

The analysis I have undertaken to date surrounds looking closely at what has been said to me in interviews and also considering a variety of documents, reports and Press cuttings on my particular subject.

The purpose of my collection at the present time is to give me preliminary data for my research. Eventually it will form the basis of policy documents which will be adopted both by Norfolk Constabulary and Victim Support. My research over the next two years will be carried out from within the police force, from within victim support and with victims of crime themselves. Already I have received excellent co-operation from all three of the above sources. This has suggested to me that my research is vital and of a practical nature.

The policy documents mentioned above will include guidelines for Victim Support volunteers on how to deal with the Media and what to expect from them. This is primarily aimed at helping them to cope with the Media pressure put on them if they are giving support to Victims of murder, manslaughter or serious crime.

Another document will be made available to victims of crime if they ask for guidance regarding Media related matters and how to deal with the Press. This document will only be given out when asked for. It would be inappropriate to give them to all victims of crime as it is only those subjected to serious crime who will be the centre of intense Media scrutiny.

I have also offered my services personally to any victims of crime who need my professional expertise in dealing with the Media. This is an idea that my research to date has prompted and a way that it has already proved of positive use. Over the past few years both myself and my colleagues have given personal support to victims and supported them at Press Conferences. This arrangement has never been formalised, however.

Part of the satisfaction and pleasure of doing this research is in being able to produce something concrete that will hopefully be of practical use to the police, victims and myself and possibly even the Media.

Looking beyond my initial research, my ultimate aim is to help victims of crime and support them in their efforts to improve their situation and turn the caring focus on them rather than on the people who commit crime. I am hoping that by fostering awareness of the effect of the Media, I will be helping this process. This is very much the focus of John and Bernie Davis whose son was killed in Worcester. My pack contains part of a long interview conducted with them where they emphasised that they are striving to have their son remembered rather than his killer. Ethically John and Bernie are aware of my project, are supportive of it and are happy to have their names used.

DEFINITIONS

I find it helpful at the outset to define what I mean by the term Media. For my research I am using this term to encompass all branches of written and broadcast press. This includes newspapers, magazines, radio and television and any other form or medium used to transmit or report news and feature material to the public.

MEDIA EXPLOSION: MY ROLE AS AN INSIDER

Over the last decade the number of Media outlets has grown out of all recognition. This trend will not let up - the information superhighway is and will remain with us. Already there are plans for thousands of cable, satellite and terrestrial television channels alongside new magazines and other branches of the written press. Alongside this we have the Internet and World Wide Web sending out information in vast quantities.

To put it in a nutshell the Media world is exploding. I work as something of an insider within this explosion. I am employed by Norfolk Constabulary as Press and Public Relations Officer. I can personally testify to the huge increase in "information outlets" and the associated increase in demand from the Media over the past few years. Their thirst for information has become virtually unquenchable.

To back up this view I would like to quote from a 1996 independent assessment of the work of Norfolk Constabulary's Press Office by Stafford University. Over a two week period the assessors carried out research into the number of Media calls dealt with. In week one the bureau received 126 and made 196 Media-related calls over a five day period (an average of just over 64 telephone actions a day). In week two there were 591 incoming calls and 247 outgoing (an average of over 167 telephone actions a day).

The above figures are from a summary of the report which is included in Part E of the data pack.

Only this year one Norfolk incident involving two missing children who subsequently drowned on the Norfolk coast, generated 1,200 logged Media calls to the Press Office over a three day period.

I kept a diary during this period which included the following comments:

Monday August 19th

There was a massive search for the children all day, I dealt with just about every national newspaper, press agency and radio station imaginable ... I worked 13 hours without a single minute's break and answered 216 phone calls....

Tuesday August 20th

Another 180 telephone calls ... By the end of the day I had worked another 12 hours without a break.

Wednesday August 21st

Since 9 a.m on Sunday there have been about 750 telephone calls into our office. The intensity of the Press interest on the subject has been unrelenting. Today I carried out 20 radio interviews and by the end of the day felt mentally and physically exhausted.

Thursday August 22nd

The telephone calls went on and on and on ...



My personal experiences, backed up by the evidence of the independent Staffordshire University survey aptly illustrate that the "Media Explosion" is well and truly with us.

An important part of my research will surround this Media explosion and the increased intrusion it has brought to the lives of victims of crime who find themselves thrust into the public eye. In their efforts to be first to the story or gain information that other outlets have not got, the Media often find themselves competing against each other. They are prepared to virtually "travel down any road" to add gloss to their story. This is a side that I hope eventually to research and back-up with evidence during my future assignments and final dissertation. To do this I will be talking to the Media itself and using my own knowledge built up over the years when I was a journalist.

Today neither distance nor communications provide problems for the Media. Satellites and advanced technology can be used to flash instant images throughout the world at the touch of a button. Literally the world has become an open book. This has been aptly illustrated to me by the aunt of murdered children in Norfolk who said:

The Media knew things I didn't know. My relations in the West Indies knew more than I did.

This "explosion" helps to put more and more ordinary people under the spotlight. These people are often victims of crime and they can be subjected to intense Media pressure and this can affect them greatly as a co-ordinator of one of the county's Victim Support groups explained:

"Very often the Media take normal, ordinary people and put them in abnormal and unreal situations."

How these people deal with this "abnormal" situation has long interested me. My concern is not just how "victims" are able to cope with it but also "What Effect the Media Has on Them," hence the title of my research.


A STARTING POINT

As soon as I started collecting data and interviews I began to realise the enormity of the project. Over the next two years on my Masters studies I hope to inquire into a number of facets of this extremely interesting subject.

Initially in this and my next module I will concentrate on the effects of the Media. I perceive that only the victims of serious crime will have been subjected to the necessary volume of Media attention to be really valuable to my research.

The ultimate crime is obviously murder or manslaughter and I have decided to use this as the criteria for my initial research (more about this in the Methodology section). All victims of murder and manslaughter (and I define this primarily as the family or immediate relatives of those killed) will have been subjected to Media attention. In some cases this interest will have been very intrusive. By interviewing people who have lived through this experience I will be able to come to conclusions as to how they stood up to their experiences and how they felt about the obvious pressures imposed on them by the Media.

At a later date it is my intention to look at what effect the Media has on victims of less serious crime, what effect the Media has on fear of crime (a full subject in its own right) and finally how the Media themselves view the way that they deal with victims. To do this I may well have to research further into concepts surrounding the "Freedom of the Press" and "Media Explosion."

I will look into the Media angle in subsequent modules after I have had a chance to formulate my own feelings about their treatment of victims.

THOUGHTS AND PREJUDICES

I have touched on my role as an insider researcher in a project which will encompass action research. I would like to take this opportunity to state some of my own views and thoughts which at this point may be based as much on prejudice as fact.

A/ I feel that victims are not given the support they need and deserve and that groups working towards improving this situation are finding many blockages and difficulties. Victims of crime are let down by the judicial system and I hope to eventually document evidence that I have of this. In an initial interview, a Victim Support co-ordinator told me that she felt a person could be a victim three times over. Firstly they are a victim of the crime in question, secondly a victim of public interest (often via the Media) and thirdly a victim of the judicial process and system where they can be forced to re-live their horrors in a court of law.

B/ I look upon myself as a caring person. As a former Samaritan helper I hope that I am able to empathise both with Victim Support and the anguish that victims can go through, I would like to help in some small but positive way to tip the balance of the scales in favour of the victim and to show that Victim Support are not just "another bunch of do-gooders", as one person has already commented to me.

C/ I feel that victims of crime sometimes have their dignity taken away and that this should never happen.

D/ I understand that steps are now genuinely being taken to help victims of crime and support them. This is a long and slow process, but that there are enough "carers" to tip the balance mentioned in B.

E/ I think that the art of caring is basic and endemic to human nature - a fact that many people seem to forget.

I am fortunate in having the full support of both Norfolk Constabulary and Victim Support in my research. Indeed Victim Support are hoping that my findings will give impetus for their demands for more support for victims. This of course is looking into the future. My initial research is a reflection on how victims of crime are affected by the Media.

Over the years I have come into contact with many victims of murder and manslaughter, some of whom I have already or will be interviewing for this and subsequent modules. My initial conversations have led me to believe that some welcome the Media attention and indeed use it as a cathartic way of exorcising some ghosts.

One couple whose son was murdered told me:

After initially feeling horrified about the Press interest, we soon came to realise that we could use it positively and provide a living memorial to our son and also to help us set up support groups.


METHODOLOGY

A Note on Ethics

Obviously the people I am interviewing are often at a very low ebb. I feel very privileged to be allowed to share in their grief and I do not treat this privilege lightly. I hope in my interviews that I have been able to convey my concern and understanding. I always underline at the start that the interviewee is in complete control of the interview and can stop or terminate it at any time.

Some of the people I am interviewing have been recently bereaved. Some have lost sons and daughters in bloody and highly distressing circumstances. Recalling details for me about how they were affected by the Media can be a painful experience and I am very aware that by talking to me they could be putting their healing process back.

"Our aim is to get victims of crime to regain the control of their lives. This can be a very slow process and sometimes they appear to go backwards. I have known the intrusion brought to them by the Press to knock their period of recovery back months," said a Victim Support co-ordinator.

I have therefore tried to conduct all interviews in a sensitive manner.

I have thought long and hard about the question of anonymity. Many of my subjects have been the subject of considerable Media interest and attention (hence the fact that I am talking to them). Some are still very much in the public eye and may be identifiable from the details I eventually give and the interviews I quote from. The last thing I want to do is bring them additional hurt by anything that I do. I have therefore decided to keep all interviews anonymous and to just give basic details of the murders involved. The only exception to this rule is with John and Bernie Davis who have already indicated that they are happy to have their names used.

I have conveyed this and will continue to do so with all subsequent interviews. I will also be offering all interviewees the chance to read my research.

Throughout the period covered by this module I have kept a research diary which is included in my data pack. This diary has enabled me to keep my research on track and hopefully not move too far away from the cornerstone of my project which I repeat is to look into How Victims of Crime are affected by the Media.

DATA COLLECTED

Initially I spent time collecting as much data as possible from the following sources.

A/ Direct interviews between myself and victims of crime.

B/ Internal policing documents. Many of these have been written by myself. I am pleased that work I have already had published within Norfolk Constabulary has been of use in my research and I feel justified in including these documents providing they are relevant to my research. I have spoken to my course tutor on this matter and she believes that they are acceptable as data.

C/ Documentation either issued by or concerning Victim Support. This is intended to give me an opportunity to look at my subject from outside the organisation within which I work.

D/ Outside documentation relevant to my studies including work put in by other police forces.

E/ Press cuttings relevant to my subject matter.

F/ My own diary entries and thought processes. The thought processes were written over a period of time as my subject matter developed. Many of the diary extracts are taken from my own personal day to day diary which I have been writing for the past 23 years. I hope to further extend this in the future to set out comments I made on the cases I am looking at when they actually happened and not months and, in some cases, years later.

G/ A document and accompanying comments made at the launch of the Support After Murder and Manslaughter group.

H/ Other miscellaneous documentation and reports to support my research.

Much of this assembled literature has formed part of my data pack. I felt, however, that to include everything at this point would prove too cumbersome. So I have been selective on my pack in order to have representative data in each of the above categories. I am also still in the process of transcribing some of my interviews.

In addition I have been using the Internet to find documents on freedom and Media studies. These are extremely diverse and will be looked at closely in the future. I have included some of them such as the Magna Carta and The Gettysburg Address in the data pack as they are documents that encompass fully the fundamentals of freedom.

EMERGING QUESTIONS and EARLY INTERPRETATIONS

Much of my research at the present times is slightly fragmented. I am still trying to formulate my own feelings and make some sense of the jumble that exists within my mind. If I had to make a rash generalisation this early in my research I would lean towards believing that there is not excessive antagonism between the Media and victims of crime. Even the limited evidence I have gathered has shown me that I may have been wrong to hold the opinion that an individual's life can be ruined by the attention of the Media. Evidence suggests that most victims of the most serious crime are happy to deal with the Media on some level.

We knew the Media existed and that they weren't going to go away and so we realised we had to deal with them alongside everything else, one couple said.

My further research is designed to either destroy or firm up this feeling.

At the present time more questions are emerging than answers. I am happy with this as initially I need those questions in order to guide my research. I would be concerned this early on if I had any answers or definite theories or if I found myself being pulled towards any specific direction.

The questions emerging include:

1/ Is the freedom of the Press in this country too intrusive?

This question is posed by my data back press cutting "When private grief becomes public property" which states:

The major reason for the recent proliferation of relatives suffering in public is the media ... They (detectives) realise that fighting the media is usually a no-win situation.

2/ What is really meant by the term "In the Public Interest" and does this all embracing term detract from the rights of individuals to have privacy?

3/ Is the freedom of the Press going too far?

Again there is plenty of evidence in the cutting from the Independent to suggest this.

4/ Does the attention of the Media increase or decrease the amount of grief and pressure suffered by victims of serious crime ?

One victim has already told me: "They took the responsibility for my grief. In many ways they were owning my grief which was wrong."

5/ Is it possible and desirable to enforce laws/regulations to curb the zeal of the Media in their attempts to track down victims of crime ?

The speed at which the news media report a case can also cause distress to victims and relatives - (Victims of Crime and The Media - A Victim Support Policy Document Page Four)

6/ Am I as Press and Public Relations Officer of Norfolk Constabulary responsible for encouraging any intrusion into the lives of victims? (This is a specific insider question).

Many of the above questions may not seem immediately relevant to my research project of "What Effect The Media Has on Victims of Crime". I do feel, however, that by coming up with some answers to them I will be establishing the ground rules that rule the way the Media deal with victims of crime.

Key words and issues emerging include the following (some have already been covered in the above questions):

Freedom of the Press
The Media Explosion
In the Public Interest
Press curbs
The term Media
The term Victim
The relationship between Victims, Carers and the Media
Strength of Character
Ownership of Grief

Only by researching answers to these questions and issues will I fully be able to understand my research subject matter and come up with an authoritative piece of research which I hope will be of interest and use to the Police, those who support victims of crime and maybe even the Media themselves.

Peter Steward (January 1997)


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