Victim Media Advocacy:
How to Facilitate Sensitive and Respectful Treatment of Crime Victims
Identifying Victims Who Can Speak to the Media
Victim service providers and service providers are often asked to “find victims” for reporters. This is both an opportunity and a potential danger. On the one hand, you want the reporter to include victims who can help people understand the trauma that crime victims endure. You also want to ensure that the victim isn’t harmed, but even the requests can seem dehumanizing: “We need a rape victim.” “We want to talk with the family member of a homicide victim, preferably someone under 30.” “We need a stalking victim for a live newscast in three hours.”
Also of concern is that reporters often want “fresh” victims who haven’t told their stories before, and they often want them on short notice. However, some victims find that telling their stories is therapeutic. Identifying appropriate victims and preparing them for an interview may also be preferable to having reporters pursue victims who may not want to speak or who may not understand the risks and benefits. Recruiting appropriate victim spokespersons can be part of building a good relationship with the media.
The challenge is to find victims who can be articulate about their experiences without suffering undue damage. The Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism adheres to guidelines to recruit victim volunteers to speak about their experiences in the classroom. The goal is to find victims who can handle an occasional insensitive question, recognizing that students can make mistakes. Among the issues:
- Victims should self-identify as candidates to speak to the media. Victims who volunteer to speak with the media are often the best candidates. They are the best judge of their readiness and there are fewer ethical concerns about their willingness.
- Victims should understand the special challenges of speaking soon after the victimization. While it is always the victim’s ultimate choice, experience with the MSU Victims and the Media Program suggests that victims whose victimization occurred at least 2 years previous are often the best candidates for interviews. The incident remains fresh in their memories but the intervening time helps them better understand and assimilate what happened to them.
- Victims should understand the benefits and drawbacks. People who work with victims have an obligation to explain both sides. With proper preparation, many victims can benefit from speaking about what happened to them, but they also risk negative experiences. Victim advocates can try to discourage interviews when a victim or victim’s family member is especially angry, simply to protect them from portraying them negatively and possibly hurting themselves.
- Never pressure a victim to speak. Reporters eager for stories can make advocates and victims feel as though the victim is obliged to speak. The advocate can play an important role in ensuring that the victim is truly comfortable about speaking out.
- Match the victim to the assignment. Some victims may be wonderful candidates for a print story but not for television, and vice versa. Advocates and service providers should work with the victim to explain the different dynamics of daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, television, and radio (see “Types of Media” in Section 2 of this guide).
- Provide help prior to, during, and after the interview. Victims will need support throughout the process. Provide preparation and guidance before the interview. It may also be appropriate to accompany the victim to the interview, as a source of support and an independent set of eyes and ears to assess whether the interview is going astray. It is also essential to provide opportunities for the victim to talk about his or her experience afterward.