Source: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

Pickton, Gein, Dahmer, Bundy. Few of us forget these names; names belonging to four infamous serial killers who shocked the world.

But the names Andrea Joesbury, Bernice Worden, Steven Tuomi, and Lisa Yates belong to the killers’ victims.  All were tortured, raped, and killed.

Unlike their murderers, they were not awarded Wikipedia pages.  They do not have Hollywood-made biographies.  And they do not have a place in the minds and memories of the public.

With so much news vying for attention, the need to sensationalize stories has grown, making the media complicit in the way we think of and remember heinous acts.  We read “Gunman Kills Six” instead of “How Poverty and Desperation Breed Crime.”

The need to shift media attention away from criminals is more than just a matter of principle.  While most suicides go unpublicized because psychologists have discovered that media coverage breeds imitation, the same findings have been shown to apply to the reporting of violent offenses. Yet media coverage of such crimes is still extensive enough to inspire new killers on a regular basis, giving the incentive of fame and profit from publicity.

In the U.S., the Son of Sam Law was passed following a 1977 murder trial, where it was ruled that any proceeds garnered by criminals for publicizing their crimes would be seized and turned over to victims.  A recent amendment has extended this legislation to not-criminally-responsible rulings as well.  Yet with crimes and the publicity they earn transcending borders and regulations, this is increasingly difficult to enforce.

The last few years have seen “popular” criminals earning fame and fortune through grisly deeds.  In 2007 in Japan, a man murdered Lindsay Ann Hawker, an English teacher, avoiding capture for several years.  His story became a hot topic for media speculators, earning him quasi-celebrity status.  Other killers who were acquitted on technicalities or due to legal loopholes also went on to turn profits from books, TV appearances, and years of controversial media exposure.

At times, the media create the very controversy they exploit.  This is especially true of crime reporting, where the focus is slanted to include graphic details of events and frightening images of suspected criminals.  The longer a manhunt or trial continues, the more attention the media are able to gain from what would otherwise be a single story.  It is this persistent coverage that creates a painful, damaging atmosphere for victims.

Psychologists agree that being re-traumatized by overwhelming life experiences can lead to difficulty with recovery.  Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can become aggravated when survivors are repeatedly reminded of painful private events in an exposing public context.  As a result, experts recommend that families and victims recovering from crime avoid contact with the media by minimizing their viewing of the news until they regain a sense of personal safety and stability.

Unfortunately, advice like that can be next to impossible to follow when a single Google search can return millions of hits for killers’ names.  When TV stations spend years showing photos of terrorists and their attacks.  And when headlines across the globe follow murderers who drag out court cases for years by slowly admitting to more crimes.

At the same time, the media can turn on the victims themselves. Reporters often hound victims of high-profile crimes, starting out benevolently, but becoming doggedly persistent if ignored.  Yet there is no formal protection from either the harassment of reporters or the reports themselves.

Legislation exists to curb the reporting of suicides.  But there is none to oversee the press when it comes to publicizing crimes or dealing with criminals and victims.

Organizations like Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting are doing their best to stop sensationalistic journalism.  But until a fundamental change occurs in legislation or the public’s appetite for detail, victims will continue to be victimized further by the media.

– Nick Zabara, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today