An aspect of mass media violence largely ignored in mass communication research and criminology is the effect news coverage has on victims of reported crimes. Few studies address the reaction of the social environment to the victims after a crime. “Secondary victimization” is defined as the victimization of the crime victim due to media coverage. It must also be taken into account that coverage of the crime can benefit the victim reported about, in that it helps them to deal with the fact of having become a crime victim.
Several authors have investigated the influence of media coverage on the outcome of trials (Bruschke & Loges 1999). There is only one study published about secondary victimization in the print media (Kunczik & Bleh 1995). The study investigated reports about the crime victims’ experiences with media coverage and assessed the influence newspaper reporting had on how the victims coped with the crime. The particular quality of the experience of becoming a victim of crime had to be considered in many ways. Because of the differences between the crimes studied and the different social backgrounds of the victims, experiences with the media vary greatly and show a broad spectrum of positive and negative experiences.
Secondary victimization can occur in the most varied ways and very frequently concerns aspects of reidentification. This implies fears of either becoming the victim of reidentification in the social environment or of being the target of a new crime, for whatever reason. Victims of different crimes show different reactions to reports about the crimes. Victims of sexual assaults (and to a lesser extent of robbery and physical injury) mostly complained about the distribution of intimate information. They did not want that information about the crime and about their person to be made public. In contrast, victims of crimes against property did not oppose media coverage. However, the results within each category showed a wide variance. Some crime victims under certain circumstances agreed to become an object of journalistic interest while others strongly rejected this.
Very often the victims criticized the insensitive and/or sometimes inaccurate reporting by journalists about the crime. Many victims were afraid of stigmatization due to the fact that they could be identified, especially in the case of victims of rape. Reporting about crime victims can, however, also have a positive, therapeutic effect (cf. Otto 2002). It is often hard for the victims to talk about what they have gone through. Here the media can assume an important role because they can make it easier for victims to make themselves understood in their social environment. The results of Kunczik and Bleh’s study show that the effects of reporting about crimes on victims are not independent from personality, type of crime, the consequences of the crime, and the results of the criminal case (whether the culprit was sentenced and whether the conviction was regarded as adequate).
On the whole, the victims’ assessment of mass media coverage turned up a surprise: the majority found it positive that their case was reported, and many felt the reporting to be neutral and appropriate and said they would agree to publication again. The cases of the victims questioned in this study show that reporting crime has more functions than informing the public. In many cases, it is an important element in the psychical workingover of the experiences and may help victims to reintegrate into the social environments from which the events catapulted them. But great sensitivity is required of journalists to avoid victims being damaged further.
- Bruschke, J., & Loges, W. E. (1999). Relationship between pretrial publicity and trial outcomes. Journal of Communications, 49(4), 104–120.
- Kunczik, M., & Bleh, W. (1995). Kriminalitätsopfer in der Zeitungsberichterstattung: Folgen der Berichterstattung aus der Perspektive der Opfer [Newspaper coverage of crime victims: The consequences of reporting from victims’ point of view]. Mainz: Weißer Ring.
- Kunczik, M., & Zipfel, A. (2006). Gewalt und Medien [Violence and the media], 5th edn. Cologne: Böhlau.
- Otto, N. (2002). Kriminalitätsberichterstattung und ihre Auswirkungen auf die Opfer und ihr soziales Umfeld: Wie beurteilen Kriminalitätsopfer die Berichterstattung über ihren eigenen Fall? [Crime reporting and its effects on victims and their social environment: How do crime victims evaluate the news coverage of their own case?]. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Mainz.