Advice for Reporters on Interacting
With Victim Service Providers
The history of the victims’ rights movement coincides with the emergence of various specialists who work with crime victims and witnesses and their families and friends. The federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), passed in 1984, provided a mechanism that allowed using fines and fees collected from convicted federal offenders to pay for crime victim compensation and for victim services administered by the states. These new resources sparked the expansion of existing groups and the development of new groups to assist victims and witnesses. These specialists typically fall into three broad categories, each with its own history and dynamic:
- Victim advocates. The early victims’ rights movement was dominated by individuals and groups who fought for passage of the federal Victims of Crime Act and establishment of crime victims’ compensation funding. Advocates were also instrumental in passing Victims’ Rights Amendments to over 30 state constitutions. Other successful victim rights’ initiatives include: (1) providing victims the right to deliver a victim impact statement at sentencing; (2) enhancement of various criminal penalties and sanctions; (3) the creation of sex offender registries; (4) expanded and improved notification policies so victims are told about the status of their alleged or convicted offenders and when convicted offenders are transferred, paroled, or released; and (5) the creation of new entities and services such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Amber Alert, among others. Many advocates are victims who felt passionately that they were not treated fairly by the prevailing criminal and juvenile justice systems.
- Victim service providers. VOCA funding helped states fund existing and new organizations and positions designed to help crime victims and witnesses. Some funding flowed to nonprofit entities, from domestic violence shelters to rape crisis centers. Funding was also used to create paid positions within law enforcement and prosecutors offices, such as the victim/witness coordinators who help victims access needed services, prepare to testify in court, document and seek restitution, and create and deliver victim impact statements. While the jobs often include helping victims, the employee’s first loyalty is to the organization, whose rules may prevent them from engaging in more advocacy-oriented activities, and to victims and survivors to help them avoid being revictimized.
- Citizen volunteers. Some law enforcement agencies, often municipal police and county sheriffs, have created Citizen Advocate groups that help crime victims. Many agencies have citizen volunteers on call that will go to the site of a crime call once the situation has stabilized. Their role is to provide personal comfort and care to victims, such as giving them a ride or refilling a needed prescription. It is not uncommon to find crime victims as part of these groups. Many agencies also provide the groups training, sometimes including media training.
As this suggests, these three groups can play important roles as facilitators or buffers between victims and the media. Painting with a broad brush, advocates will often pursue reporters, particularly columnists and editorial writers, in the hope of bringing attention to and enlisting their support for various causes. Justice system-based victim service providers, on the other hand, may prefer that victims refrain from speaking to the media before and during trial, to avoid potential contradictions in their testimony. Citizen volunteers who may or may not have media training may be asked to handle reporters who arrive at the door wanting interviews.
While journalists may be tempted to view these three groups as obstacles to getting an interview, they can also be valuable sources of information and assistance. Victim advocates know the history of the movement and can direct reporters to valuable sources within the field. Service providers typically know the system and can help reporters thread the maze of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Reporters who develop rapport with these groups can find that they will help them get the interviews they seek.
Some service providers are themselves national, state, and local experts in particular kinds of victimization, from domestic violence to sexual assault and rape to child abductions. They can offer current and past statistics, as well as access to people with specialized knowledge and analysis. There are also charitable foundations with specific missions, including the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation that worked with the families of Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson to draw attention to their missing children.
News organizations benefit from learning more about victims and the people who work with them, just as those groups benefit from understanding the role of the journalist. A proactive approach to developing communications and positive relationships with these advocates and service providers includes—
- Invite victim advocates, service providers, and citizen volunteers to serve on advisory panels and make presentations to editorial boards. Newspapers in particular often have citizen advisory panels. It would make sense to reserve a seat for a victim, victim advocate, victim service provider, or citizen volunteer. These groups and their representatives could also be invited to provide a presentation to an editorial board. Such boards are composed of the people who lead and manage the newspaper. Encouraging victim representatives to provide editorial board presentations can help top editors better understand what victims want and need, while dispelling the myths surrounding various kinds of victimization. Ideally, the editors will then educate editors and reporters in the newsroom.
- Offer tours of the newsroom. Outsiders often do not understand the role of the journalist and how and why they do what they do. A guided tour followed by an opportunity for questions and answers would help victim advocates and service providers understand the news business better. A growing number of print and broadcast outlets are installing Webcams in their meeting rooms, so citizens with broadband connections can visit their Web sites and “sit in” on daily meetings about what news to cover and how.
- Enhance greater transparency and opportunities for feedback. News organizations that are migrating to the Internet often talk about increasing transparency, which means opening up the way they do business to outside scrutiny. This trend could be used to allow those who work with victims more opportunities to comment on stories, issuing both kudos and complaints.