When a violent death occurs, the victim’s family members and close friends often are traumatized, some more so than others. News stories, depending on how they are positioned, can add to the trauma, especially when the coverage is sensationalized, with little or no regard for what the survivors are going through. While this type of coverage has been tempered somewhat in recent years (witness Sandy Hook), it still pains me to see tragedy exploited in this manner. (Not to say that as a journalist I haven’t participated in this to a degree, much to my regret.)
Then come the true-crime writers to capitalize on the headline-grabbing tragedies. I will not tar all true-crime writers with the same brush. I have read accounts that were written tastefully and were respectful of the survivors and the emotional trauma they experienced—generally when the survivors were involved in the writing process.
However, when a true-crime account of my parents’ deaths hit the stores just before Christmas in 2009, my family and I only found about it when a family friend called one of my sisters to tell her about the book. Compounding the shock and further traumatizing me and family members, the account, written by Seattle-based Ann Rule, contained many inaccuracies. Topping it off, Ann Rule never offered an apology—only a lame excuse.
I address this matter in the final excerpt from my forthcoming book, Dare I Call It Murder?: A Memoir of Violent Loss, which will be formally launched tomorrow. You can read the excerpt online at: Excerpt: Chapter 32.
If it bleeds, if leads
Roger Simpson and William Cote write about news coverage of violent events in Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma (Columbia University Press, 2006). They say that progress has been made in recent decades, but more can be done.
For all the gains in understanding of the trauma of people who suffer violence, many in the public believe that journalism continues to exploit victims, milking their grief, shock, or fear to give their reporting a compelling edge. While some journalists are reporting on violence with extraordinary sensitivity, others do continue to treat victims as necessary props . . .
But the news media is enabled by its readers and viewers, whose appetite for such stories often seems insatiable, which the authors describe as “assembly-line thinking.”
Readers and viewers all too often complain about the media’s exploitation of suffering people yet readily join in the country’s gluttony for violence-filled products of commercial entertainment. Media corporations . . . build pain and injury into their news formulas, in the worst cases making sure that the first stories in the news program whack viewers’ emotions.
Simpson and Cote further say that:
[S]tudies estimate that 40 percent to 80 percent of the population has experienced a traumatic event. In that number, traumatic injury is common—perhaps one of ten suffer long-term emotional wounds.
Thus, how a story gets covered “has the potential either to add to the injury or to help in the recovery.”
When my parents’ deaths made news headlines around the world, and three decades later when Ann Rule’s book came out, it added to the injury.
I accept part of the blame for the often inaccurate news coverage at the time. I had the opportunity to speak with reporters and did not. In part because the FBI asked me not to, and in part because I didn’t think it was any of their business; I just wanted them to go away.
In hindsight, I made a mistake. They did not go away, nor would they, and without speaking to them I could not control the message—or the facts. That came back to haunt me when Ann Rule published her (in my not-so-humble opinion) pathetic piece of crap. She relied on inaccurate, 30-year-old news stories that I might have been able, at the time, to correct or at least offer an alternative explanation for what had happened. She had an opportunity to correct those errors, but she did not contact me or anyone else in the family to confirm her “facts” about the case.
Simpson and Cote suggest there is “a way to tell about life’s experiences in ways that serve personal and social needs” by “searching responsibly for the truth, keeping the public interest in mind, caring for the people in the story . . . doing no harm . . .” and giving the victim ‘equal space.’ ”
I hope I have achieved that in my book, and I hope that fellow journalists—and true-crime writers—will subscribe to the authors’ belief that “news can tie the victim and the public together constructively through the rigor of thoughtful reporting practices.”
And I suppose I should thank Ann Rule, in a back-handed manner. Had she not written such an atrocious account of my parents’ deaths, I may not have had the impetus to complete my own book.
As part of tomorrow’s book launch, I am giving away some prizes to people whose names will be drawn at random from the mailing list (no purchase necessary). The prizes include a Kindle and a number of books. If you’re not on the list, you have until 10 a.m. tomorrow to sign up.
And Off She Goes . . . (capitalized because it’s also the name of fiddle tune played when sailing ships of old cast off their moorings and left port)