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following article appeared in the Police Research and Management Journal
Victims of Crime and the Media
This paper looks at the complex relationship that exists between the
police, victims of serious crime and the Media with particular emphasis on
victims. Over the past three years the author has been studying the effect
that the Media has on victims and how those victims have come to terms
with appearing in the national spotlight. The work has been part of a
Master of Arts Degree in Professional Development at the University of
East Anglia and will also form the basis of documents to be used by Victim
Support and internally by Norfolk Constabulary. At the same time as
serving as a research project in its own right, the author’s work has
led him on a journey of understanding of his own role and his relationship
with victims of major crime.
Grieving relatives taking part in Press Conferences has become a commonplace feature of life in the nineties. As we approach the new millennium, victims of crime are no longer left to grieve in private and, in high profile murder cases, relatives can be turned into celebrities.
Many victims have an unbelievable acceptance of this situation and find dealing with the Media very therapeutic at a time when they are suffering immense sadness and stress.
Ironically some Media outlets have begun to question the validity of Press Conference appearances and at least one national newspaper (Independent 1996) has referred to the voyeurism of putting a member of the family forward, claiming that it is an unacceptable form of entertainment.
As a public relations professional working within the police environment I find this attitude confusing to say the least. Press conferences involving distressed relatives or victims themselves were originally held to sate the Media’s demand for news and appearances. In Norfolk we have never organised a press conference for entertainment purposes. They have either been at the behest of a victim or to help the investigation process.
This paper argues that the demand for Press Conferences has gone hand in hand with a modern day Media explosion and also discusses why the majority of victims decide to co-operate in some way with the Media.
For this paper the term “victim” is used to describe those either directly or indirectly affected by major crime. In the case of murder and manslaughter the direct victims, obviously, are dead. In these cases the term “victim” includes immediate members of the dead person’s family. These family members are indirect victims as opposed to direct victims who are those subjected to serious attacks but who are still alive.
The term media is defined as any outlet working in the public domain
which transfers information and/or news to the public by any means
including the written word, the broadcast word or by electronic methods.
This incorporates everything from newspapers and magazines to television
and radio and the Internet.
Data was collected through questionnaires and individual interviews
with police and media and through personal interviews with victims of
crime. Questionnaires to victims was thought to be too unfeeling and
mechanical as each had to be dealt with in a sympathetic way. In this way
over 100 people were interviewed in some form or other.
Victims of crime are all too often the forgotten people in the process of law. They receive excellent support from groups such as Victim Support, but still can feel isolated by a situation that is outside their experience.
They suffer either directly or indirectly from the crime committed and then are often asked to relive the details through the process of the courts.
Today they have to deal with another - and perhaps the biggest intrusion in their lives - the media.
The “ownership” of their grief will be taken from them and they
will be expected to re-live and re-visit their situation time after time
over what can be a relatively long period. Interviews with victims suggest
that the amount of pressure they are placed under has a correlation with
their acceptance of the situation and their willingness to co-operate with
the media. The more they co-operate the less pressure they come under.
The Media is arguably the singular most powerful group in society. Historically the picture of the massed media is of a group of downtrodden reporters dressed in raincoats with press cards poking out of a Trilby. This is no more reality than comparing modern day police officers with Dixon of Dock Green. Today the outward appearance of the reporters may not have changed all that much but their mode of work has.
The modern day Media have instant access to satellite links, computers, mobile telephones and very advanced technology. Above all the new technology has brought with it an explosion in media outlets and one that is unlikely to diminish until the public stops reading newspapers, listening to the radio and watching television - something unlikely to happen. The speed at which the media work bears no comparison to that of former days.
Today newspapers, television, radio and electronic media combine to colour our view of not only the world as a whole but also our own immediate neighbourhood. The media can build or destroy reputations (as has been shown in their handling of a certain England football manager) and affect our lifestyles as never before. Today’s mass media constructs and destroys its own images through the power that it wields.
Journalists interviewed as part of this research have confirmed that the explosion is a fact. They no longer expect to be on their own or with a small group at incidents. Today at major incidents they expect to be joined by local, national and even international colleagues. This in itself produces an atmosphere of tough competition for the journalists who are trying to find unusual angles. The days of exclusive angles on major stories seems to be coming to an end. Anything vaguely newsworthy will be picked up by many outlets simultaneously.
Surveys show that 60 per cent of people over the age of 15 read a national daily newspaper and 70 per cent read a Sunday paper. In addition 4,000 local newspapers are sold in Britain every minute. Ten years ago there were 45 commercial radio stations, now there are well over 200 and in the next decade it is anticipated their number will at least double (Peak S. And Fisher P. 1997).
In 1995 the average British citizen watched 2.84 hours of television each day and 96 percent of households in Britain had a colour television - many had two or more. (Peak S. And Fisher P. 1997).
Television programmes such as Crimewatch and Crimestoppers, along with fictional series such as The Bill, have fuelled the public’s fascination with crime. The public also enjoy being shocked or frightened by events they feel cannot really harm them. Research shows that they enjoy these programmes in vast numbers.
A survey compiled for the Royal Television Society’s magazine “Television” shows that in 1997 fictional police series held two of the top three ratings places. “Heartbeat” came second with 18.35 million viewers for one episode and “A Touch of Frost” with 18.22 million viewers was third. They were only beaten by the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
In addition The Bill was 19th with 14.15 million and the factual Police
Camera Action was placed 23rd with an audience of 13.66 million.
The police are the third side to the triangle. police-media relations is an intriguing subject on its own. This is a sphere that has improved immensely over the past decade with most forces now employing specialist press/public relations officers with media backgrounds. In Norfolk there is a training programme which encourages all employees of the force to deal openly with the media. The days of “no comment” are long since gone.
The Police played only a limited part in the research undertaken, although an extensive analysis of the author as a media and p.r practitioner was carried out designed to establish just where such professionals sit during a major crime. Two questions the researcher had to face were: Do the media manipulate police press officers and conversely do police press officers manipulate the media?
In order to answer these questions the research looked closely at the different areas which the police press officer has to take account of and balance. This projects four models of representation. These models are:
· 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. This model would be acting firmly in the
interests of the victims.
· Satisfying the media’s need and almost working as their representative to obtain and pass on information. This can leave the media practitioner feeling he/she is employed by the media. This is not true but it can be the media’s perception of the role. This model would be primarily acting in the interests of the Media.
Independent and Professional
· Maintaining control of the story as much as possible and this
includes packaging it in such a way that it receives the correct slant in
media coverage. In this way the practitioner is representing the interests
of the police, media and victims.
· Representing the interests of the police to ensure that they come out of the situation in a good light. In this way the practitioner is acting in the interests of the police.
It is difficult to put these four functions in any kind of priority order and their importance changes according to the situation. During a murder investigation it is probably more important to consider points one and three over two and four. In a controversial anti police story, however, point four would be of primary importance.
The overriding rule, however, for police media professionals is that they should never behave in an unprofessional way. They should never betray the trust or deliberately hurt victims in any way by giving information to the Media that they (the victims) do not want released and they should never pass on any confidential information to the media gathered from the police. These are simple matters of good practice.
THE PRESSURE POT
Putting victims and the media together is a potentially volatile mix. On the one hand we have a group of people “doing their job.” On the other we have people in the depths of despair, living a nightmare that can seem totally unreal to them.
The day before an incident this latter group were members of the public going about ordinary lives. Suddenly, through no choice of their own, they are thrust into the full glare of the media spotlight. Their every move is captured by the press - many of whom will be entering their lives for a brief period of time before moving onto somebody else’s grief.
There are so many different facets to the research undertaken, but this article focuses on just two sides of the situation. The research primarily set out to establish why many victims chose to co-operate with the media and secondly, as already mentioned, to assess the role of the police press officer within the framework of the situation. The research went on to look at the situation from a police and a media point of view - but here it stays with the victims and the police media professional.
The research soon established that a surprisingly high percentage of victims accepted the media intrusion. The author would fall short of saying that they enjoyed it, but most realised that the media would not go away and the only way to deal effectively was to “feed The beast”.
This decision by many of them to co-operate with the media could not have been taken lightly and it is astonishing to think that in the depths of despair many of the interviewees thought immediately about the media.
One particular interviewee whose daughter was murdered admits that one of her first thoughts was regarding media interviews, even as far as what she should wear for a press conference. This lady has spent five years actively courting the media and has appeared on both national and local television and radio. To the author’s knowledge she has never refused a single interview.
Others openly encouraged media attention for a period of time before withdrawing from the public’s gaze. Others accepted the media interest for the immediate period surrounding their tragedy before asking to be left alone. Experience and the research evidence suggests that the media by and large respect this situation.
A number of interviewed victims did not wish to deal with the media but accepted that they had to do so and some reluctantly dealt with the media, often doing so through the police.
The final category is those who refuse to have anything to do with the media. The research has shown that perhaps surprisingly these are in a very small minority.
The main point of this side of the research was to establish why those who decided to co-operate with the media did so. The majority of victims interviewed admitted that dealing with the Media had entered their thought processes very early on, even in some cases before the initial shock had passed. “How am I going to deal with the press” seemed a question that often went through their minds.
This showed considerable awareness on their part. At the height of their sorrow they were able to realise that they could not maintain exclusive ownership of their grief. The media are far too powerful to allow them to do this.
They realised their private grief would within hours become public property through the sheer weight and power of the Media.
So what were the reasons that these victims chose to deal with the media?
A whole string of reasons came out. Many were replicated amongst different victims, but many came up with new insights and new reasons. Some gave greater weight to particular areas. There was no prompting from the researcher - the reasons came from the victims themselves and the primary areas (these are not in any specific order) were:
A/ As a memorial to a loved one
This came out very strongly in the research. The victims were anxious
that the media should represent their relatives in a positive way and that
any press coverage should be an epitaph to them
B/ To prevent the criminal gaining notoriety
This was both applicable whether the police had arrested anybody for the crime or not. The strong message here was that relatives were not going to allow the media to paint any kind of heroic picture of the criminal. They were going to ensure that the focus was placed firmly on the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime. At times this has meant victims quite aggressively steering the media away from concentrating on the criminal.
Perhaps the most obvious and understandable reason. It did not come at the top of most of the interviewees’ lists. Most were more interested in the two categories above despite having every right to be angry.
D/ Safeguarding/Giving to Others
This is a particularly interesting category and applied mainly where a son or daughter had been killed. Many victims wanted to ensure that others, particularly youngsters, did not fall into the same trap as their offspring. Much of this was a matter of lifestyle and giving parental advice. Others wanted to use the media to help their fight for compensation and one couple even set up a support group for victims of murder and manslaughter and used the press to promote this.
E/ Keeping Control of the Situation
This is an interesting category in the light of the previous comments about the media threatening to take over the lives of victims. Many victims stated that by co-operating with the media they felt that they were staying in control of the situation and not allowing it to be mis-represented. This was also underlined by direct victims who had been assaulted but lived to take part in their own press conferences.
F/ Previous Feelings about the Media
After interviewing numerous victims it was apparent that this played a major part in the way they dealt with the media. Almost without exception, those that seemed happy with the media intrusion accepted that “they were only doing their job,” or that “they have a job to do”. Most were regular television watchers and/or newspaper readers, some of whom had experience of dealing with the media on local matters such as charity fund-raising, amateur dramatics or other more pleasant matters. Some admitted that they had never given the media much thought previously but had still realised the intense interest there would be. In the few cases where victims refused to co-operate it was either due to a previous bad experience with the media or an inbuilt dislike of them with no foundation.
Every victim dealt with the media on a different level and it would be impossible to discuss generalities. Each victim is unique. Each victim has his or her own agenda when dealing with the media.
So the conclusions of this research turned more into observations.
The research suggests that those who co-operated as much as possible with the Media came out of the situation feeling reasonably happy. The author is aware of two particular victims who have undertaken every interview put to them. They speak in glowing terms about the help they have received from the media and the successful way they believe this side of their agony has been faced.
The research also suggests that it is not and never should be a police function to either talk victims into- or out of - dealing with the media. The decision must always be theirs. Interview data shows that victims were very capable of making their own mind up on this difficult subject.
The research also suggested that victims thought very deeply about dealing with the media, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of becoming public property through appearances on television and the radio and in newspapers and magazines.
Sadly the one thing no amount of research can do is take away the hurt that the victims will always feel.
One victim has referred to himself as "a member of a very exclusive club, but a club nobody wants to belong to."
Research into this area is necessary to aid our understanding of victims’ needs and how the police service and other agencies can help to meet these.
Sadly the reality is that murders and attacks will continue and, consequently more victims will be thrust into the limelight. The police media professional can only try to make this limelight as comfortable as possible and to ensure that the media does not add to the victim’s burden.
Independent Newspaper (1996) - When Private Grief Becomes Public Property (article)
Peak Steve and Fisher Paul (editors), (1997), The Media Guide. Fourth Estate, London.
Times Newspapers Ltd (1998) - TV Imports Beaten By Old Fashioned Classics (article)