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The Media and Victims of Crime

Chapter One

Introduction and Aims

For the past 10 years I have been employed by Norfolk Constabulary as Press and Public Relations Officer. The main part of my job over this period has been to provide information to the Media both from a re-active and pro-active stance.

This has necessitated my involvement in numerous major incidents and investigations in the county, often working alongside the SIO (Senior Investigating Officer).

My experiences in organising press conferences and dealing with the Media, along with 17 years of previous experience as a working journalist, have, I believe, allowed me to build up a good knowledge of Police/Media relations. To this end I have produced a number of policy and guideline documents for the force.

In the past five years I have found myself working increasingly on behalf of victims of crime and helping them to deal with the Media.

Over this time I have witnessed a huge proliferation in the number of Media outlets - something I refer to in police training courses as the Media Explosion. At the same time Media outlets have become more aggressive and more competitive in their search for news. Not content to merely cover a story, today they are always looking for the unusual and exclusive angle.

This has all led to monumental pressure being put on victims of crime. For previous modules for my Masters of Art degree I interviewed numerous victims to find out how they felt about the demands of the Media. Some welcomed it, others have put up with it and others have tried to shun it. It is my firm belief that those who have agreed to co-operate with the Media have come out of the situation the best.

I believe that in many ways victims of crime are the forgotten people in our society. They all too often seem to be overlooked in a system that caters for every other aspect of the process of law.

Having already looked in two previous pieces of research at the way victims feel they are treated by the Media, and the way police feel that victims are treated by the Media I want to use this dissertation to complete the triangular look at Victims and the Media by studying the attitudes of the Press themselves. At the same time as doing this I hope, once again to interweave the feelings of victims to help my own understanding of the subject.

It is not my intention to allow my research to sit gathering dust on a shelf. I intend using it to help in a number of areas.

Firstly to provide a comprehensive manual for the police on the relationship between the Media, the Police and Victims of Crime. Already my research is being incorporated into a variety of in-Force documents.

Secondly it is my intention to use my research to help understand and improve the service that I and my colleagues can give to Victims of Crime with regards to dealing with the Media.

Thirdly to help the Force to understand a little clearer the attitudes and views of the Media and fourthly to produce documents for Victim Support helpers which can be passed on to victims. These documents will outline the help that Norfolk Constabulary Press Office can give to victims of crime and also provide information for Victim Support volunteers which can be passed onto victims with regard to dealing with the Media.

As much as anything my research has been an active personal journey to improve my understanding of what is a very difficult area where care, compassion and understanding is needed but sometimes not used. The whole Media/victims scenario can be a very volatile mix indeed.

I am certain that the work I have undertaken will help to develop my own understanding of the situation and through that understanding give me the opportunity to reach out and help victims.

My first aim therefore will be to illustrate something of the power of the Media through the use of literature and interviews that combine to suggest we are in the middle of a Media explosion which shows no signs of abating.

By establishing this power I hope to illustrate the amount of pressure that victims of major crime will be put under by the Media.

It is my intention then to look at the Media themselves to find if guidelines exist for journalists on how to approach and deal with victims of crime and to find out how individual reporters treat victims of crime. I want to establish whether they adhere to any guidelines and also how they feel personally about approaching victims of crime and also how they feel their colleagues treat victims. I believe that this will go towards establishing whether the majority of members of the Media behave in a responsible fashion towards victims of crime. The meaning of the word responsible in this context will be made clear in the course of the dissertation.

 

1:1 Ethics

I am aware that over the past two years my research has taken me into very delicate areas. Indeed in looking at the way the Media treats victims of crime I must be very aware of my own dealings with the victims.

I have approached my dealings with victims on two levels. The first of these has been from a professional point whereby my relationship with them has been as a senior manager with Norfolk Constabulary. I have tried to be totally honest with them in informing them of what the Media will demand. At times I could be accused of being "hard" with them, but I have felt it important to leave them under no false illusions about the strength, the power and the demanding nature of the Press.

I have tempered this, however, with a caring attitude towards them. I am very aware of the trauma that these people are going through and I do not want to add to their heartache. I have at all times, therefore, been aware of their feelings and made provision for these in the fact that at any time I would stop Media interviews if they felt uncomfortable.

In addition I drew up a code of ethics for my dealings with them. I reprint this below as I am aware that I have used some comments from victims not already used in my previous research.

I also include the code of ethics devised for dealing with police officers and the Media. Those dealing with the Media are relevant to this piece of work. The police ethics were used previously but included here as many of the comments made to me by officers have formed part of my thinking and given me ideas that have been used in this dissertation.

1:1:1 Police

Part of my earlier research involved interviewing police officers regarding their views on the Press. This included interviews with officers who have had direct contact with bereaved families and other victims and also family liaison officers. These interviews took place either personally or through questionnaires. Each person interviewed and each questionnaire sent included a copy of an ethics document stating the following.

A/ That the interview was given in strictest confidence

B/ That they would receive a transcript of the interview (in cases of personal interview) which they would be allowed to alter if they were not happy with any part of it.

C/ That they would not be identified unless they specifically asked to be

D/ That they would have access to my research and

E/ That at any time they could stop an interview and ask for it not to be used.

In addition my position as Press and Public Relations Officer for Norfolk Constabulary gave me access to highly confidential police data, meetings and resources. Under no circumstances would I use any of this material in my research.

1:1:2 Victims

This was the most sensitive area of my research. Almost without exception, the victims had all been through tremendous ordeals. All had featured in high profile Press coverage both locally and nationally (hence their interest to me).

In order to maintain uniformity with the format of previous research, however, I decided not to name any individuals although I made interviewees aware that readers of my dissertation could possibly identify them from their own knowledge of the cases through the Media.

I agreed that if an interviewee asked me to use their name specifically I would do so. It turned out that all the victims I spoke to were happy to have their names used although, for the reasons outlined above, I maintained anonymity but felt that I was not constrained by the worry of them being identified from my material.

I transcribed each individual interview and offered a copy to the interviewee to give them the chance to change any part of it. Where tapes were used I offered them to the interviewees following transcription and also offered to wipe them clean.

I made all the above points in a written document which was given to all interviewees. I also informed them that my dissertation and my previous research would form the basis of policy documentation for Norfolk Constabulary and asked permission to reproduce sections involving them if necessary.

I emphasised that I would not use any sections that they were not comfortable with.

1:1:3 Media

For my research I define Media as any outlet working in the public domain which produces news whether this is by the written or spoken word or by electronic means. This will therefore encompass newspapers, magazines, television, radio, computers and other formats.

I interviewed a number of journalists and Media sources. I believed it to be important to maintain uniformity in all my research by not naming the journalists personally or the organisations they represented. I decided on this course of action despite the fact that many have a very high profile in the community and the organisations they represent are in the public domain.

I felt it important, however, at times to identify the type of organisation that they represented in order to ensure that no confusion occurred. An example of this was where a senior reporter from a news agency was talking about representing 40 to 50 Media outlets. This would not have made sense without explaining that he was from a representative agency.

1:2 Availability

In addition to using my research as the basis for policy documents for Norfolk Constabulary and also for the Victim Support charity I intend making previous modules and my dissertation available within the Force. This intention was conveyed to all my interviewees.

At all times I held the belief that the ownership of individual interviews and the material from them belonged with the interviewees. Anything they were not happy with has been excluded.

I must say at this point, however, that interviewees from all branches of my research - victims, police and media - were all extremely helpful throughout. I met with no opposition and generally with genuine warmth and interest from all those I interviewed.

 

1:3 My Position as an Insider

It is my intention throughout my research to look at and analyse my own experiences as I believe that they dovetail with my subject matter. I have a good working relationship with the Media built on a reasonably solid foundation of trust. I am aware, however, of the flimsy nature of this trust that can easily be broken by either side.

The media can misrepresent or misquote me and I can be accused of withholding information. Together we tread a very fine line between success and failure. I am also aware that both the press and myself can be manipulative of a situation.

Sometimes I feel that it is a matter of control and domination - with both sides wanting to call the shots and be in charge.

Certainly the media can be manipulative and often what they print or broadcast is not so much about the truth per se as their interpretation of the truth which can be coloured by their audience.

Any journalist worth their salt will know what their target audience is and adapt their style accordingly.

At the same time I would have to hold my hands up and admit to also being manipulative of the Media. I see my role as performing a variety of different functions which include the following.

1. Representing the wishes of the victims and their families and helping them to cope with their tragedy and the pressure put on them by the Media. This also includes helping them to use the Media for whatever purpose they may feel fit. In this way I believe I am acting firmly in the interests of the victims.

2. Satisfying the Media's need and almost working as their representative to obtain and pass on information. In the past I have often ended up feeling that I was employed by the Media and I am sure at times they see this as my function. This is not true but it can be the Media's perception of my role. In this way I believe I am acting in the interests of the Media.

3. To maintain control of the story as much as possible and this includes packaging the story in such as way that it receives the correct slant in Media coverage.

4. Representing the interests of the Police to ensure that they come out of the situation in a good light. In this way I am acting in the interests of the Police.

I would find it difficult to put these four functions in any kind of priority order and would argue that their importance changes according to the situation I am dealing with. During a murder investigation, it is probably more important to consider points one and three than two and four. In the controversial anti-police story, however, point four would be of paramount importance.

I have carried out my research therefore as someone who sees himself as working equally with (and for) the police, victims and the media. Part of that job involves representing each to the others. I have two very important rules, however. I would never betray the trust or deliberately hurt victims in any way by giving information to the media that they did not want released and I would never pass on any confidential information to the media gathered from the police.


Back to Index Page
Go to Abstract
Go to Chapter Two
Go to Chapter Three
Go to Chapter Four
Go to Chapter Five
Go to Glossary
Go to Bibliography