National news programs exploit crime victims and their families

June 15, 2011 

If you watch any of the 24-hour cable news channels, you can’t avoid the nightly barrage of shows which focus, ad nauseam, on true crime stories with an emphasis on missing, exploited and murdered children.

It’s impossible to escape the coverage of a missing child; the most recent example is Caylee Anthony, whose mother is currently on trial for the child’s murder. Any redeeming value in shining a spotlight on a child victim who might possibly be found through tips from the viewing public is overshadowed by torrid voyeurism.

The players involved in the investigation become characters in a soap opera, made more sordid by the sensationalized television coverage. Each night, fingers are pointed, understandably, at family members who most often are legitimate “persons of interest.”

However, instead of neutral reporting about the status of the criminal investigation, viewers are treated to hours of reckless speculation about who killed the child and why. The anchors and the guests, who are most often legal commentators, essentially play a game of Clue in front of millions of viewers.

The family’s dirty laundry is aired, skeletons rattling in their closets. Innocent until proven guilty becomes guilty in the media until proven innocent in a court of law. Oftentimes, the evidence reported in the media is compelling. A person rightfully emerges as the perpetrator who should be vilified if indeed he or she did kill a child. Child killers do not deserve our sympathy, but perhaps their families do.

The grief of a family whose child is missing or murdered is unimaginable. Yet the media, often with reckless abandon, spotlights the grieving family, creating an insatiable desire in its viewers to learn increasingly salacious details each night. While the suspect’s adultery may be an issue in the case, do we, the public, need to know all of the graphic details, even if we secretly desire to play armchair detective?

Apparently, we do because some of these news programs share the transcripts of the racy text messages with audiences each night, while in the background a montage of pictures of the smiling child victim is displayed. I have often wondered how an innocent family member must feel if he or she came across such a program while channel surfing. How do you watch strangers on national television Monday morning quarterbacking your child’s murder?

In all fairness, some of the family members do seek out publicity; however, it is mostly to bring in tips, find the body or solve the murder. Desperate parents and relatives will often voluntarily appear on these shows in their pursuit of justice.

I recently observed one such interview by a well-respected morning anchor. The mother just learned that her murdered daughter’s body had been discovered. The anchor asked her, “How do you feel?” Hard-hitting journalism? Obviously not, because any person, whether a parent or not, knows the answer to that question. But the fact that the question is asked demonstrates the callous nature of news programs to crime victims and their families.

The coverage only intensifies once a suspect is brought to trial. Some might say this is the price we pay for having a judicial system which is fair, open and accessible to all. However, no one could have anticipated 24-hour news cycles which demand endless fodder to captivate a national audience, obtain ratings gold, and more importantly, the almighty ratings/advertising dollar.

Is the murder of a child newsworthy? Absolutely. But the reporting of it should be done with grace and empathy. Featuring nightly coverage of a child’s murder week after week is not journalism, but simply exploitation.

Ami Peterson, who lives and works in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at amipetersonoly@yahoo.com.

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