There is no doubt that the media today is more focused on victims than it has ever been before. The rise of social networking sites and self-publicity via the internet has made it possible for journalists to delve ever deeper into the lives of people on whom they wish to report. However, it has also unearthed a disturbing strata of cases which go unreported - as seen in the past week with the contrasts between the coverage of the murder of Joanna Yeats, and the disappearance of Serena Beakhurst (who at the time of writing, has just been found safe).
The news we receive via the media will always be vulnerable to distortion - there is no way a newspaper could report on all the events that occur in one day. However, it is important to consider how journalists and newspapers go about deciding which stories deserve priority. To do this, we must consider what makes an 'ideal victim'.
In 1986, Nils Christie considered the 'ideal victim'. He described them as 'a person or category of individuals who, when hit by crime, most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim' (2). (i.e. A victim who will not be judged to have precipated the crime against them in any way)
A person would typically be ascribed 'ideal victim' status if:
- They are vulnerable and weak
- They were carrying out a respectable activity when the crime occurred
- They were where they could not possibly be blamed for being
- The offender was 'big and bad'
- The offender was unknown to the victim
Consideration of the phenomenon of the 'ideal victim' still leaves us with an uneasy question to answer though: Why are so few deprived people or people from ethnic minorities afforded this status, even when they quite clearly satisfy each category? Do we need to add 'the victim was white' or 'the victim was middle class' to the list of prerequisites?
On January 12, 2006 both Tom Ap Rhys Price and Balbir Mataharu were brutally murdered after being robbed. In the fortnight after the murders, the media had generated 6,061 words about Rhys Price's death, and 1,385 about Matharu's.
After Shannon Matthews disappeared in 2008 (before her 'kidnapping' was revealed as a hoax), the Independent compared coverage in the mainstream media in the nine days following her disappearance with coverage received in the nine days following the disappearance of Madeline McCann. The results, and the corresponding amount received in donations, make for startling reading.
I believe that these cases, and the Yeats/Beakhurst cases are indicative of the lean towards white, middle class 'ideal victims' in the media.
Until we can rid the media of this obsession, we will never achieve true justice. The crimes that go unreported in this country because they are not one-dimensional, or because the media have decided that the victim does not 'appeal' to their readership creates a secondary level of victimisation we must all suffer.
(1) Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, University Of Chicago Press, p.143
(2) Christie, N. (1986), In Fattah, E. (ed.) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy: Reorienting the Justice System, London: Macmillan, p.18