Wednesday 5 January 2011

The media and the 'ideal victim'

Garland said: "If victims were once forgotten, hidden casualties of criminal behaviour, they have now returned with a vengeance, brought back into full public view by politicians and media executives who routinely exploit the victim's experience for their own purposes. The sanctified persona of the suffering victim has become a valued commodity in the circuits of political and media exchange, and real individuals are now placed in front of the cameras and invited to play this role" (1)

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
Obviously, not all of these criteria are fulfilled by every victim of every crime that is reported by the media, but an overwhelming majority of cases follow the same pattern. This is often designed to help keep a story 'simple', with only one way to interpret the events - i.e. Victim = good, Offender = bad. There is no room for grey areas. 

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


  1. I believe there also to be an element of the criteria fitting a demographic most likely to buy the newspaper with the story in it.
    A lot of people think newspapers are there to distribute news, but I think they are there to print what they think will sell newspapers.

    Never believe any of it anyway.

  2. Interestingly enough, I was going to include your point, but for one reason and another in the editing, it came out. Mainly because I have too much faith in humanity and hope that no one would ever stop buying a paper because they featured victims of crime that were economically deprived or of an ethnic minority. I hope.

  3. I wasn't even sure what I'd written made sense at the end!

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  5. [sorry - edited from above for clarity]
    Yeah, when the Joanna story was suddenly all over the news (about a day after I saw it on Twitter), I thought "What? The story is 'A Woman Has Gone Missing'? But people go missing all the time - why does this person have blanket media coverage?" And then "Oh, of course. Nice girl, landscape architect, respectable background. Not thought to be doing anything unusual that would muddy the idea of who to blame in the story." As you said, it makes for the perfect story of sweet damsel in distress and evil villain. And selling stories people want to buy is the business newspapers are in.

    I wonder if part of it, as well as any media bias, is that those same nice, respectable victims also have friends and relatives with better connections and access to getting a story in the news? The McCann case seems the obvious example of that - it was very much due to the efforts of the McCanns to keep the story in the news that it stayed there so long (and, you know, wouldn't you try everything you could if your daughter had gone missing?). I don't think Karen Matthews could have set up a media campaign like that, even if she hadn't faked the whole thing.

    Even before the media got hold of the Joanna Yeates story, it was a highly successful Twitter campaign (I remember thinking "Who is this woman, and why are my friends tweeting about her?"). Presumably, her friends knew this was an effective way of getting the word out and attracting media attention (and were able to get enough people involved to get it to propagate).

    So even if you managed to remove the deliberate media bias, you'd still get some disparity, just in terms of who had access to the right channels in the first place. Not that removing it wouldn't go a long way to making things better, of course.

  6. The recent conclusion of the Bradford serial murder case highlights the point you so persuasively make. The sex worker/ substance user 'profile' of those slain rendered their treatment by the press as hostile- slight to sympathetic no-show, whereas the socio-psychopathic killer had his self-delusions splashed across the the poor, victims have to be 'deserving', it seems.