Nothing engenders more distrust of the media than careless or hurtful treatment of victims. Yet, despite all good intentions, further victimizing the victim does happen in news stories. Consider the bare bones of this story, which appeared in two metropolitan dailies on the same morning (principal names are changed; all else is the same):
Billy Ryan, 17, and friend Josh Cook were outside Josh’s house about 4 a.m. when they saw a man breaking into a neighbor’s car. The boys called 911 and confronted the man, who scuffled with Billy and then stabbed him to death. The man and his companion fled in the companion’s car but were arrested later and held without bail on charges of murder while committing a felony.
Newspaper One’s story begins with those salient facts, then adds:
But beyond that, details are sketchy. Police said one of the teens had a gun with him, but they are unsure which teen had it or how he came to possess it. Officials are also uncertain why the teens were out at 4 a.m. … .
Veronica Clay, a spokeswoman for Smithville Independent School District, said that the victim never showed up at Venture High School in January. The teen entered the alternative school in October after leaving Polk High School.
The story ends there. Earlier, it also mentions that a friend said Billy “bounced around a lot.”
Consider the subtle but negative impact of the words uncertain why the teens were out at 4 a.m., never showed up at Venture High School, bounced around a lot. The story in Newspaper One leaves readers with this impression: Some kid, a high-school no-show who “bounced around a lot” (whatever that means) and may have had a gun, was out at 4 a.m. and was stabbed to death in a street fight.
How did the victim come to be the goat? After all, he died trying to stop a robbery. Newspaper One gives more space to careless, incomplete and ultimately inaccurate allusion about the victim than it gives to facts about the killer – who, we learn from the other newspaper, has been arrested several times, both for burglary and for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Those facts are not mentioned in Newspaper One’s story.
Newspaper Two’s story, however – which begins with the same bare bones presented in the second paragraph above – adds that the boys were sitting in a pickup in front of Josh’s house when they saw the man breaking into the car:
Ryan was spending the night at Cook’s house, and the two were outside smoking cigarettes, according to Cook’s mother, Doris, who said she would not allow them to smoke in the house … .
Monday evening, Ryan’s friends gathered to remember him, said Doris Cook.
‘We’re still in shock,’ she said. ‘One moment he’s here; the next he’s gone.’
Doris Cook said that Billy and Josh knew each other from Polk High School. She described him as a good person who loved his mother.
‘He was always respectful toward adults,’ Cook said. ‘You could tell that he was a nice person just by being around him.’
We then hear from the same spokeswoman quoted in Newspaper One’s story, Veronica Clay. Here, she says that after leaving Polk High, Billy Ryan attended the alternative school Venture High, which, among other things, was geared toward dropouts who have returned to finish their education. The story continues: Ryan dropped out of Venture on Jan. 20 and said he was going to pursue his GED, Clay said.
Sounds like a different story in some important ways, doesn’t it? (A follow-up story in Newspaper Two said it was in fact Cook who had the gun and scuffled with the man and that Billy Ryan was stabbed when he tried to defend his friend. That story also said that Billy had arranged for a GED program and would then work at his uncle’s masonry company.)
Newspaper Two not only presents a more fully reported version of the story – answering questions left unanswered by the story in Newspaper One – but it also presents a fuller, fairer profile of Billy Ryan. In Newspaper One, he seems a juvenile throwaway: never showed up at school, nobody knew why he was out at 4 a.m., bounced around a lot … .
And let’s say all that is true. Should he be murdered? Should we care less? More important, is it relevant to this story? Is irresponsible and harsh treatment of victims just another way of blaming the victim? Ah, she would never have been raped if she hadn’t worn those short skirts. If he hadn’t gone into that sleazy bar … .
In Newspaper Two, Billy Ryan might well be a boy with problems, but people care about him as a nice kid who had plans and “loved his mother.” What must it be like for that mother, who in her grief must also deal with news stories that paint her slain son as an unsupervised dropout, maybe somebody who didn’t matter that much?
Fair and balanced treatment of victims has nothing to do with slanting stories, distorting or omitting fact, or with sentimentalism or mawkishness or even advocacy. But it does have to do with human decency. Sometimes, to be sure, even the most ethical journalism hurts innocent people. But ethical journalism is also quick to distinguish between the hurtful but relevant and necessary, and the irrelevant, irresponsible or unfair.
Paula LaRocque was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News for 20 years. Her latest book is “The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.” A collection of her Quill columns appears in “Championship Writing.” E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.