July 20, 2000
Will "Victim/Witness Media Information Cards" leave crime victims better informed of their rights or biased against the press?
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: These small cards may pack a powerful punch. They are called "Victim/Witness Media Information Cards." Fairfax County, Virginia, Police say distributing these instructions to victims or witnesses of crime informs people about their rights when they are approached by journalists covering the story. The cards are an innovation, and at this meeting with police called by the National Society of Professional Journalists, reporters complained that the real crime may be the trampling of first amendment rights.
DICK HAMMERSTROM, The Free Lance-Star: Most of these people never deal with the police, or never deal with the media. It says, essentially, if you choose to give an interview, please call one of the numbers on the other side. But to a person, that's saying you have to get police permission.
TERENCE SMITH: Warren Carmichael, the longtime public information chief for the Fairfax police, helped craft the controversial cards.
WARREN CARMICHAEL, Fairfax County Police Department: I know that in our department, and I know for a fact in other law enforcement agencies, over the years there have been individual detectives or investigators who will growl to a victim or a witness, "don't talk to the press." And I am sure that has a very chilling effect on the recipients of that command. We are taking an approach that's completely different. We're not saying, "don't talk to the press." We're saying, "we will offer you help and assistance -- if you want it -- to help you to talk with the media."
|A limit on the press?|
TERENCE SMITH: But some reporters fear the cards may make it even more difficult to maintain their credibility and do their job at the scene of a crime.
SANDRA JONTZ, Fairfax Journal: You just feel that sometimes you bang your head against the wall in trying to present information to the public. And you've already tied our hands, and here's yet again something else that feels just a bit binding.
ANNOUNCER: You're watching Washington's ABC 7.
TERENCE SMITH: The idea for the cards was hatched when a Washington, DC, television news reporter interviewed the mother of a five-year-old boy who had been approached by a suspected serial child molester. After the interview, the mother says she asked the reporter not to air pictures of her son. When the station, WJLA-TV, broadcast the interview and briefly showed the boy, the police protested, saying the station had potentially revealed the boy's identity at a time when the suspect was still at large.
The card, scheduled to be printed in English, Spanish, Farsi, Korean, and Vietnamese, has undergone some changes since its conception. After some initial negative press reaction, the Fairfax police toned down some of the language in this first version. The new wording reads this way, with the changes noted in red. "News media may wish to interview you regarding this incident. You have the right to grant or refuse interviews. If you choose to give an interview, please call one of the numbers on the reverse side. You will be given advice important in protecting your rights and the investigation. But there is no legal requirement to contact police prior to an interview." On the reverse side, what once said simply "contact the investigating officer or detective," now reads, "For information and assistance," followed by the detective or officer's name.
DAVE STATTER, Reporter, WUSA-TV: I'm worried about it. I believe it tries to limit what we can do as reporters.
TERENCE SMITH: Dave Statter, a veteran Washington, DC, television crime reporter, says he and Warren Carmichael have worked closely-- and clashed on occasion-- over police restrictions. Statter says he's worried about the message the card may send to victims, witnesses, and the public at large.
DAVE STATTER: We know already there are detectives out there who tell victims or witnesses, "do not talk to the news media." This kind of makes it somewhat official. And this card, in combination with what the police officer might say, would keep information away from us.
TERENCE SMITH: In various cities, government agencies other than police departments have handed out flyers counseling the public about talking with the press. For example, this flyer, distributed to welfare recipients in Virginia by the Department of Family Services, tells its readers that if they are contacted by the media, it's okay for you to take time to make up your mind; feel free to say yes or no. But opponents of the victim/witness media information cards say the police badge printed on the card sends a distinct message. Bob Becker of the Washington, DC, chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists made that point to Fairfax police.
BOB BECKER, Society of Professional Journalists: Your county, like much of the Washington area, is populated by a large number of people who came here from other countries, from authoritarian countries where when the police tell you anything, you do what they said. That's what my problem is with your card saying, "call us first," because those people will see this card as saying, "I have to have your approval to do that."
TERENCE SMITH: In response, Becker has drafted his own card for reporters to distribute. The card reads in part: "My job is to inform members of the public about crimes so they may protect themselves from becoming victims in the future and to inform them of the progress police make investigating and solving such crimes. If you do not wish to talk to me now, you may call me later at the number below."
POLICEMAN: Back up! Back this way. Everybody back this way.
|The price of media irresponsibility|
TERENCE SMITH: While critics complain that the press frequently doesn't follow any rules at the scene of a crime, the Society of Professional Journalists points out that its code of ethics specifically urges minimizing harm to victims or relatives. But even some journalists concede the press isn't uniformly responsible.
DAVE STATTER: Certainly through the years there have been excesses by the news media. There are things that I have seen on TV that I cringe at. I'd like to think as a reporter I'm responsible, and I'm also concerned not to mess up anybody's case.
TERENCE SMITH: Some media critics contend it's not just victims, but also the police who can be harmed by poor press conduct.
RICK ROSENTHAL, RAR Communications: If you are a victim, or if you see someone who is a victim of media assault, or media battery, or media brutality, you cannot let it stand. You must not.
TERENCE SMITH: Rick Rosenthal, a Chicago reporter for 22 years, now travels the country coaching law enforcement on dealing with the press. He promotes the use of media information cards, and he uses the story from WJLA-TV in Washington as an example of why the police should control press behavior.
RICK ROSENTHAL: I cannot imagine the terror that this little boy has gone through, and now he's being victimized again by the media? Take a look. This is the face of media brutality.
TERENCE SMITH: Rosenthal also uses an example of what he calls media assault from his home turf of Chicago. A local news station released the name of a woman who had been accidentally shot before police could notify her family. He asks his class how law enforcement officers should handle that type of situation.
COMMANDER DEB ANNIBALI, Vali, Colorado, Police Department: Obviously, you can't take back what's already occurred. Assure them that you will try to find out, you know, where the error took place and why that happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Patrol Sergeant Rick Holford of the Moffett County, Colorado, Sheriff's Department, argues that the press often oversteps its bounds.
RICK HOLFORD, Moffett County, Colorado, Sheriff's Dept.: I think sometimes the media will try to coerce more than we can actually give them. I think whatever information they can get to give the public, especially if it's a bit sensational, they'll try to coerce that out of us. So I think sometimes heads clash there.
TERENCE SMITH: In contrast, Sue Young, whose daughter, Martha, was murdered by a serial killer over 20 years ago, says local news people in Lansing, Michigan, dealt with her sensitively.
SUE YOUNG, Victim's Rights Advocate: I felt like they were my friends, and it was a reciprocal relationship, that they always treated me with respect.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporters even helped Young when she inadvertently divulged information the police wanted kept secret during the search for her missing daughter.
SUE YOUNG: They had me on tape. They had me on video. They had everything I had to say. But I asked them, "would you please take that all off the record? And let's start over." And to a person, they honored that request. Not a single, solitary person scooped the story because they put my daughter's life above a news story.
TERENCE SMITH: Two years ago, Young says press coverage aided in her successful push for a Michigan law which today transfers serial sexual predators, such as this man who killed Young's daughter, to mental institutions after they have served their sentences.
SUE YOUNG: Channel 10 ran a whole series on it in the public interest, I believe, because they felt like that it was something that needed to be done.
|The risk of re-traumatization|
TERENCE SMITH: While victims' rights advocates agree much of the press coverage of crime is on the mark, they worry that victims may be re-traumatized by some in the press. Bonnie Bucquerox coordinates Michigan State University's Victims and the Media Program.
BONNIE BUEQUEROX: No self-respecting editor would send someone to cover the Friday night football game who didn't know football, but they'll take the rookie and send them out after the individual's had their family wiped out by a drunk driver. And it's almost a test of fire in some cases that they do this with young journalists.
TERENCE SMITH: To prevent this kind of practice from flourishing, Bucquerox and her colleagues instruct journalism students on "how to do good, not harm."
BONNIE BUEQUEROX: Even if it's a matter of using canned phrases saying, "I'm sorry for your loss." Even if it sounds phony, it's better than blurting out the bad -- you know, the wrong comment that you might make.
TERENCE SMITH: Sue Young speaks to Buequerox's classes, advising budding reporters on how they should treat the victims of crime.
SUE YOUNG: I tell them to be a human being first and a reporter second, because I believe that in so doing, that you can serve a tremendous, tremendous good for the community.
WARREN CARMICHAEL: What we're going to cover this morning is the utilization of our victim advisory cards.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, in Virginia, the Fairfax County Police Department is proceeding with its plans to train detectives, including these plainclothes officers, and begin distribution of the victim/witness cards. Law enforcement agencies from around the country have inquired about doing the same.
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