THE image is so pervasive as to have become a cliché: the flashing lights of squad cars, the ribbons of yellow tape marking off the scene of a violent crime, the intrusive presence of a reporter for a local television station, sticking a microphone into the face of a shocked and grieving relative of the victim and asking, "How do you feel?"
Murder is ubiquitous in America, and murder and its aftermath are legitimate subjects for news coverage -- even if, as Eric Schlosser explains in this month's cover story, "A Grief Like No Other," most coverage can scarcely hint at the true impact of murder on a victim's immediate family. One thing that makes family members and others angry is an attitude toward murder which at times moves beyond the insensitive and toward the cavalier. This tendency has many outlets, from Hollywood blockbusters to remarks made in casual conversation. TV news programs -- overhauled in recent years seemingly in order to maximize depictions of social mayhem in a fast-paced environment of garish electronic color -- are only the most apparent.
Parents of Murdered Children, an organization described in Schlosser's article, has drawn up a list of guidelines for reporters who write or broadcast stories about murder. Here is some of what the organization suggests: Attempt to interview people only if they have expressed a willingness to be interviewed; take seriously a request for privacy. Be willing to accept a written statement, or an interview with a family spokesperson. Be compassionate and sensitive. Be more flexible than you would be with other sources. Do not use video that is exceptionally violent or graphic. Tell family members where and when the story will appear. Do not tell family members that you understand what they are going through. Do not give out the addresses and phone numbers of family members to other journalists. Be prepared for anger, toward the media in particular.
A number of national organizations now exist in order to assist family members and others who are coping with the murder of a loved one, to help reduce the prominence of violence in popular culture, and to secure certain legal rights for victims' families. The most encompassing group is the National Organization for Victim Assistance, at 1757 Park Road, NW, Washington, D.C. 20010 (202-232-6682); it has ties to most of the leading organizations nationwide. An information clearinghouse on victims' issues is operated by the National Victim Center, at 2111 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201 (800-FYI-CALL). Parents of Murdered Children is headquartered at 100 East Eighth Street, Suite B-41, Cincinnati, OH 45202 (513-721-5683).
-- THE EDITORS
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 280, No. 3; page 6.