Victim Media Advocacy:
How to Facilitate Sensitive and Respectful Treatment of Crime Victims
How Media Relations Affect an Organization or Agency
There are over 10,000 organizations that assist victims of all types of crime in the United States. In general, two types of organizations and agencies may interact with the news media as advocates for victims and sources for crime-related stories: victim assistance programs within system-based agencies; and community-based and nonprofit organizations. In addition, there are citizen volunteers who provide unpaid assistance to various organizations that serve victims.
Today, victim service providers and victim assistance programs are embedded in agencies that span the entire adult criminal justice spectrum and, in many jurisdictions, in the juvenile justice system as well (“system-based agencies”). Victim service providers serve within agencies in law enforcement, prosecution, courts, probation, parole, jails and institutional corrections, and in nearly all state attorneys general offices. They primarily work with victims who have reported crimes and whose cases are being processed through the criminal or juvenile justice system.
While their job responsibilities vary considerably, many will come in contact with journalists as a duty related to direct victim advocacy. However, there may be necessary constraints on advocates’ interactions with the news media, based on agency policies and protocols, as well as the wishes and needs of victims in individual cases.
System-based victim service providers often struggle with their roles as “advocates” for victims when victims’ wishes directly conflict with what their agency believes is best in a specific case. In some cases, such as when a judge issues a “gag order” during trial and all key players are prevented from speaking publicly about a case, victims who want to speak out may perceive advocates as working “against their interests.” In all cases, victims’ wishes for confidentiality and privacy must be identified and respected.
Most justice agencies have clear policies and procedures for media relations, including who is able to speak to journalists, either as an individual or on behalf of the agency. It is important for advocates to understand how such protocols affect their actions, so that they can explain them to victims who may disagree with specific policies that personally affect them.
Victim service providers are sometimes requested by agency administrators or senior staff to provide information about their programs or to serve as liaisons between journalists and individual victims. More often, they are “team players” in a coordinated media response. For example, many justice agencies have public information officers (PIOs) or media relations programs that rely on all agency staff to be able to respond to journalists on a case-by-case basis. Victim service providers are valuable sources for agency PIOs and administrators because of their knowledge about victims’ rights, needs, and concerns and their personal relationships with victims whom the agency serves.
Since many law enforcement agencies have PIOs, the International Association of Chiefs of Police sponsors a Public Information Officers Section within its national organization. The section has published a variety of resources relevant to the news media and law enforcement (including victim-related issues), including—
- Model Policy on Police Media Relations http://www.theiacp.org/documents/pdfs/Publications/PoliceMediaRelationsModelPolicy.pdf
- Police-Media Relations Concept and Issues Paper http://www.theiacp.org/documents/pdfs/Publications/PoliceMediaRelationsModelPolicy.pdf
The National Information Officers Association (NIOA) represents professional emergency services and public safety information officers and helps its members improve their capacity for effective media relations. Its Web site can be accessed at http://www.nioa.org/.
These victim advocacy organizations assist victims of crime whether or not they report crimes to law enforcement. However, the role of community-based victim service providers in dealing with the news media may differ considerably from system-based advocates, since they are less constrained by justice agencies’ media relations policies and procedures.
Community-based organizations should have clear policies that guide their agency’s interactions with the media and how they can best represent victims’ interests. Written policies can address—
- Specific personnel within an organization who are (and are not) authorized to speak to the media (including citizen volunteers).
- If and how an organization and its staff can represent victims—only upon request and following consultation with the victim—in the media, including ground rules and boundaries for media relations (see Tip #9 of “Guidelines for Media Interviews”).
- How media relations on behalf of a victim will be coordinated with the victim/survivor, relevant justice agencies and professionals, and journalists.
- How victim privacy issues will be addressed.
- How the agency will deal with minor victims (children and adolescents), including privacy protections and communicating with their parents or guardians.
- Information that can be provided to crime victims about their personal interactions with the media (see “Tips for Crime Victims and the Media: Guidelines for Media Interviews” and “Tips for Media Interviews” in Section 1 of this Guide).
- Guidelines about how to document all media contacts.
- Staffing for media relations that provides for 24/7 contact between the news media and an organization.
In addition, community-based advocates are sometimes in a unique position to—
- Serve as personal advocates and spokespersons for victims in the media, and advise victims about their options—and the potential consequences of the choices they make—in dealing with the news media.
- Educate media professionals about the impact of crime on victims and how insensitive media coverage can result in “secondary victimization” that can increase a victim’s trauma.
- Invite journalists to visit and learn more about victim assistance programs in the community, such as crisis response, victim support groups, counseling programs, shelters, etc.
Some law enforcement agencies, often municipal police and county sheriffs, have created Citizen Advocate groups that help crime victims. Many agencies have citizen volunteers on call who will go to the site of a crime once the situation has stabilized. Their role is to provide personal comfort and care to victims, such as giving them a ride or refilling a needed prescription. It is not uncommon to find crime victims as part of these groups. Many law enforcement agencies also train the groups, sometimes including media training.
While citizen volunteers are seldom given responsibilities for media relations, their close proximity to victims may expose them to journalists who are covering a crime. Therefore, media training and awareness of agency policies related to interactions with the news media are essential to their volunteer duties.