Journalists can feel like an incoming meteor to a brand-new homicide survivor. Sometimes it’s even them who deliver the bad news.
Homicide co-victims immediately feel “offline.” We’re quite literally “dumbstruck.” And wouldn’t you know that’s just about when we discover a news truck, cameraman, and journalist trespassing in our driveway and approaching our door, microphone at the ready? We’ve succumbed to our most vulnerable, inarticulate, and confused state of mind we’ll ever know – and they want a heart-rending coherent convo. For public consumption. That will outlive us. Maybe even shown in court.
Haven’t we seen this before? A ragged survivor emerging from a bunker surveying her demolished home following a brutal tornado? Or an injured survivor of a mass homicide being whisked away on a gurney by EMTs with cameramen and reporters in boorish hot pursuit?
An Undeniable Yet Overlooked Truth
We mustn’t ever forget that professional journalism is a for-profit business. They aim to please shareholders. They’re not a social service agency. Some argue they’re not even a public service provider because they can skew information. And cherry-pick stories. Sometimes even news reporters become the news.
The last two decades brought increased competition and desperation among media giants in response to declining revenue, rise in advertising costs, and competition from social media. It’s become so bleak that some outlets sent an SOS to philanthropists when “whiz-bang apps,” subscriptions, classified ad revenue, pink notices, and paywalls failed to resuscitate the days of old.
Advertising revenue accounts for 75% of their income. So, there’s an ever-present lure for journalists to be swayed by stories favorable to advertisers. It’s unethical, tempting, and understudied.
The bottom line influences every decision a network or newspaper makes – from ads, to if a crime will be covered, story placement, the inclusion of visuals, who’s chosen to cover a story, vocabulary, how intrusive reporters become, and how long they persist. That’s where we come in.
A Collision Course
On the one hand, there’s the media who’s thirsty for revenue. They know crime sells. And on the other hand, there’s us, crime victims. We’re stunned, vulnerable, and naive about how this all works.
I recall the disruption from the media at my husband’s funeral. It was a circus. I left early. They also camped out in front of my home and barged into my office waiting room at work. They phoned so frequently I changed my number at least monthly. The media invasion was the main reason I deserted my hometown to blend into oblivion and lead a redacted life for 30 years.
Voice of Sanity and Compassion
I don’t mean to use a single, wide brush to paint all journalists. Though many are only concerned with the byline, a few “get it.” One is Tamara Cherry who worked as a crime reporter for years in Toronto. Reflecting on her career she said:
I distinctly recall the feeling of dread at the discovery of a trauma survivor’s contact information. Suddenly it was time to knock on a door to ask for an interview. Suddenly it was time to burst into a shattered person’s life during what were likely their darkest hours.
Friends, family members, and journalism students have often asked what it was like approaching bereaved loved ones at such a time. I used to say it was the worst part of the job but also the best. It was the worst because I never knew how someone would respond. Would they curse at me and slam the door? But it was also the best because sometimes families did invite me in, share their stories, and thank me as I left.
I recognize now that knocking on those doors was always the worst part of the job. Even when I was invited in, many times, I shouldn’t have been there to begin with.
Not only does she “get it”, but Tamara is also educating other journalists. Her research is summarized in the book: Trauma Beat: A Case for Re-Thinking the Business of Bad News.
We were the unlikeliest of colleagues. I distrusted and disrespected journalists after what they put me through. She had regrets about her interactions with crime victims. But, through her research, we had a meeting of the minds. Tamara even wrote the introduction to my book What Now?
My experiences with the media following my husband’s murder could be filed under “I wish I knew then what I know now.” After all, who’s there to answer our urgent questions? Who do we turn to on a moment’s notice? Are there any general rules of thumb? Fortunately, yes.
What Shock Does to Our Ability to Speak Coherently
Shock Hobbles Speech. Trauma triggers dozens of unavoidable physical reactions. It’s a primitive, automatic evolutionary response with the sole purpose of keeping us alive.
One biological change is a sudden drop in blood pressure (“vasoconstriction”). During a crisis, blood is instantly diverted from speech centers in the brain (and other “non-critical” areas like our fingertips) to keep vital organs going (heart, lungs, and kidneys).
This means our speech centers are starved for oxygen from the reduced blood supply. We stammer, hunt for words, gulp air and even struggle to control our lips. The result? We appear deaf, high, senile, distracted, crazy, or not real bright.
Journalist: “Can you tell listeners what you saw when the assailant attacked your son?”
Witness/Survivor: “My son? Ah… er, my son, Kenny, yes…. Ah, you know… He – I mean they… Two blasts. It was… He… [pause] My Kenny! [sob]
Shock Hobbles Concentration and Memory. Besides speech being hijacked, so is thinking, and attention.
Trauma survivors experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts. And we can forget important information, (like the description of the getaway car).
Journalist: “What time did this happen?”
Witness/Survivor: “It was… late. Dark. Yes, darktime. To, to, today. It was… An hour ago? No. Maybe five? Well, not early.”
This process also prevents new information from being encoded into our memory (again due to insufficient blood supply). So, someone may appear to be listening and comprehending but later have little to no recollection of that conversation.
Detective: “Here’s my card. I’m Detective Kelly. We’ll be in touch.”
Journalist: “Which officer was assigned to your son’s death investigation?”
Witness-Survivor: “Assigned? There were… many there. Lots of police talking. Someone might know. Yes. I’ll wait, to know…”
Shock Hobbles Higher Level Functioning. And it gets worse. More advanced abilities also collapse. We struggle to empathize, plan, make decisions, and focus. While being interviewed victims may peer off in the distance, freeze, repeat themselves, and be self-consumed.
Journalist: “What are you going to do next?”
Witness/Survivor: “Wait. Yes, wait. [turns back to camera] It’s too late, you see? Where should I go? Let’s pray.”
The Chosen Ones
There’s a predictable cherry-picking for “desirable” stories that drive revenue. So, some front doors are avoided. Families snubbed.
If the homicide you grieve falls into these first four categories below, you’ll be hounded by the press. Case examples follow in parentheses.
Pretty Face. The top contender for news coverage is a homicide where the victim is white, female, young, from the burbs, and viewed as non-complicit. The news is treated like a true crime whodunit. (Gabby Petito)
Oddity. Coming in at a close second is murder from a rare method or unlikely assailant. (Mary Bell, age 11, murdered two small boys in an abandoned house in northeast England days apart in 1968. Her story went international.)
Famous Face. The story is also sure to make news when it involves someone with fame/wealth/or power. (Jeffrey Epstein, Sam Cook, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, John Lennon, Tupac Shakur, Nichole Brown Simpson, Natalie Wood, Michael Rockefeller, Biggie Smalls, Gianni Versace, Selena.)
Many Faces. Another media magnet is the death of a group of people from either a string of deaths that are chillingly similar (suggesting a serial killer) or because it was a mass homicide. This is the stock and trade of Hollywood, docudramas, and true crime podcasts. (The four University of Idaho students who were stabbed to death in November of 2022.)
Race. However, all things being equal, homicides of minorities in predominantly minority neighborhoods receive minimal coverage. (Chances are good you’ve never heard of the homicide of Derek Phillips, a “gentle giant of a man” who worked as a bouncer at Brickhouse Lounge in Seattle. He was unarmed when he was murdered for doing his job in August of 2023. His 7’0” stature wasn’t enough to save him.)
Saturation Point. Journalists are also likely to bypass homicide stories when editors deem the news to be saturated with similar deaths. For example, the summer of 2020 witnessed a staggering number of demonstrations triggered by the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Following the lifting of curfews after two weeks, the death toll had climbed to 19. The first reported death was Calvin L. Horton, Jr., in Minneapolis, then Javar Harrell in Detroit, followed by Dave Underwood in Oakland and James Scurlock in Omaha. By July many more had died. That was when Summer Taylor, 24 was killed. It was over the July 4, 2020 holiday weekend in downtown Seattle. Her story received less nationwide coverage.
Hello? Anyone Here? Another practical matter determining which stories make the news pertains to the availability of personnel. With the flutter of pink slips, there are fewer reporters and videographers sitting idle. No staff, no story.
Three Options When the Media Comes Knocking
No cooperation. Say nothing. Do nothing. Attach a notice of non-cooperation on your door. Ask them not to knock or call. Turn off your phone. Better yet, leave town for a bit.
Partial Cooperation. Work with one preferred reporter. Or refer all reporters to a social media post. Perhaps appoint a family spokesperson to speak on your behalf at a time of your choosing away from your home. Another variation is to send a press release.
Full Cooperation. Grant an interview (or two) but understand much will be deleted. It’s usually part of a larger story. Set the parameters early and never include vulnerable adults or kids. Hold it in a neutral place – like a police station, city hall, or park.
Regardless of your level of cooperation, try to get all family members on the same page. (But there’s still no preventing a disgruntled neighbor, former coworker, or third cousin removed from telling their version of events.)
It’s wise for everyone close to the murder victim to avoid social media, texts, and emails temporarily. Encourage everyone to communicate in person or by telephone (voice) instead. Also, take down the social media account(s) of the deceased. Anything in writing can be used in court. There will be some insensitive comments, inconsistent remarks, or irrelevant posts.
Hasty family posts mean they’ve lost control over the message.
News coverage is most intense at the time of death, of arrest, opening of the trial, verdict, and years later during probation. Because all news eventually fades, it’s surprisingly helpful to ask a friend to collect and store all news information. It may come in handy in ways you cannot foresee at the start.
Media outlets do not work for us, true. Yet we cannot afford to alienate them either. What if the murder remains unsolved? Or a reward is offered for needed evidence? Try not to burn bridges.
The bottom line in all this is the time-worn question: Where does the public’s right to know end and the right to privacy begin?
For more information see Chapter 3 of my “What Now?” reference book.
A unique perspective can be gleaned from a former Toronto Crime Reporter, Tamara Cherry. Her book is titled Trauma Beat: A Case for Re-thinking the Business of Bad News is available on Amazon.