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Home > Publications > Quill > Covering tragedy with compassion


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Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Covering tragedy with compassion

Minimize harm to victims by understanding, respecting their emotional state

Commentary by Andy Schotz

We in journalism need to listen more often to voices such as Roberta Roper’s.

She and her husband, Vincent, didn’t seek to become news figures. It happened, though, when their 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was raped, tortured and murdered in 1982.

Every day, devastated families are thrust into the news because of tragedies. It happened to 33 Virginia Tech University families April 16.

Victims’ families are “numb with disbelief,” said Roper, a founder and chairwoman of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center in Maryland.

Unfortunately, the news cycle doesn’t hibernate while pain, grief and shock settle in. Reporters with deadlines gather information the same day that violent crimes are committed. That includes finding out victims’ life stories from people who know them.

We should listen to Roper now, off deadline, because in the midst of pressurized reporting, videotaping and photographing, we focus on the news, possibly at the expense of the sources we question.

For us, a shut-down phone receiver or a slammed door might mean a missing piece of the story. For those shutting us out, the encounter might be a jarring episode of intrusion or more pain.

My SPJ chapter in Washington, D.C., invited Roper and Gale Seaton, whose 17-year-old daughter, Stacey, was murdered in 2005, to share the views of victims’ families.

Maybe we journalists know to be respectful and gentle and to listen. But do we understand trauma? Can we take a step back when someone isn’t in his or her right mind, gripped with grief?

“Crime victims and survivors are in a huge state of fog,” Seaton told us.

“We don’t always make the best judgment calls in the first days.”

If Seaton had a chance to think ahead, she might not have given a detective an unflattering photo of her missing daughter, the only picture she had handy. The photo, to Seaton’s dismay, was used in media coverage of her daughter.

Some media outlets later agreed to stop using the photos, but others didn’t, she said.

Roper criticized the practice of sticking a microphone in front of a grieving person and asking a “how-do-you-feel” type of question. Sometimes, an interviewer worsens the situation with an awkward attempt at being soothing — something like, “‘Hopefully, this will give you some healing and perhaps bring you closure,’ words that are very offensive to many victims, in fact,” Roper said.

We must be tasteful when we ask victims and their families to talk to us, especially when the pain is freshest. We must act gingerly, not steamroll.

The SPJ Code of Ethics gives guidance:

•“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

•“Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”

Those suggestions are in the code under the heading “Minimize Harm,” which was the theme of SPJ’s Ethics Week this year.

During our ethics discussion in Washington, D.C., I was pleased to hear Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira, a panelist who covered the Virginia Tech shootings, say he puts decency first when seeking interviews.

“I approach with a notebook in hand … and if they say no, I walk away,” he said.

“Many victims and survivors, I believe, would be far more cooperative with journalists and the media if a more respectful and unexploitive relationship could be established,” Roper said.

Several years ago, the D.C. Pro chapter came up with a tool to help.

Our crime victim cards were a reaction to a Virginia police agency’s attempt to be overly protective. The police issued cards telling crime victims and witnesses that they didn’t have to talk to reporters and, if they did, they should call the police first.

Some D.C. Pro board members came up with other cards for reporters to hand out.

We sent those cards to SPJ chapters across the country, and we still have more. If you’d like some, send me an e-mail at aschotz@spj.org.

Police shouldn’t devise sensitivity rules to cordon off victims and keep journalists away. But if we don’t set and follow our own decency standards, that might be what we face.

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