Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How the media deals with victims

By Carol Costello
updated 4:59 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Coverage of Flight 370 included video of anguish shown by families of passengers
  • Carol Costello says she and many journalists loathe asking the grieving to go on camera
  • She says some want to air their views, and in some cases it results in positive things
  • Costello: Media needs to pay attention to the dividing line of what is exploitative

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Reporters say it all the time, and I agree: We loathe asking grieving family members to go on camera.

When Malaysia's Prime Minister told families that Flight 370 had ended over the Indian Ocean, some journalists were at the Beijing hotel where loved ones had gathered for their agonizing wait.

Some collapsed. Others could not contain their grief. They screamed. Some were so bereft they needed medical attention.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

Through it all cameras rolled.

The Associated Press reported most relatives wanted reporters to leave. A security guard "restrained a man with close-cropped hair as he kicked a TV cameraman and shouted, 'Don't film. I'll beat you to death!' "

That image frankly made me sick to my stomach. (CNN made the decision to air some of those pictures.)

More help on the way in plane search
Global airline group forming task force

Yet, other images, captured by photojournalists, of angry family members storming the Malaysian Embassy in China to demand answers, filled me with pride.

These images illustrate the most important part of our jobs. To give voice to the voiceless. Power to the powerless.

Both scenarios are vivid examples of the decisions journalists must make when it comes to putting a "face" on a story. Emotion is a powerful tool. It draws viewers in. It persuades them to care about an important story that happens miles away. And when viewers care, governments and police are often forced to act.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist from the Poynter Institute, says, "That raw emotion is part of what is holding Malaysian authorities accountable."

The challenge for journalists is to know when a search for truth crosses the line and becomes exploitative.

Viewers often accuse us of not knowing where that line is, and sometimes they're right -- but, then again, many viewers don't know the difference, either. Not because they are uncaring, but because they are human.

"Most people don't want to see victims exploited," McBride says. "Yet you can post the most exploitative interview ever and people will read it." Human beings, she adds, understand the world through stories. "The narrative of how that victimization happened and how that victim responded is incredibly meaningful. It helps us make sense of the world."

That's why networks send their biggest stars to sit down with victims. Diane Sawyer's interview with Jaycee Dugard, the young woman kidnapped as a child, raped and rescued a decade later, garnered huge numbers. As the Hollywood Reporter put it: "The July, 2011, Primetime special, which aired from 9 to 11 p.m. ET ... attracted 14.8 million viewers. The ABC special was TV's most-watched summer newsmagazine telecast in seven years."

Dugard followed up with a best-selling book, "A Stolen Life: A Memoir."

The truth is, as a journalist, you just don't know whether a victim wants to share his or her story until you ask.

Thirty years ago, in my first job in TV, I was sent to cover a story about a woman who had been carjacked, raped and stabbed in both eyes.

Miraculously that woman, Phyllis Cottle, survived. I didn't know her name on that day, of course. In the 1980s few rape victims ever talked to the press. Reporters were told (and still are) never to report a rape victim's name without her consent. Never to show her face.

After a week or so, my news director told me to try to get an interview with Phyllis. Stunned, I told him, "She's still in the hospital! She's blind. I will not do that. It's not right."

My boss, Larry States, did not force me to call the hospital, but he did warn me. "Other reporters will ask her. You don't want to get beat on this story."

I didn't believe him. At 22 years old I didn't yet realize how competitive TV news was until I watched my competitors on the 6:00 news that night. There was Phyllis Cottle, sitting up in a hospital bed, her eyes covered with huge white bandages.

"Catch him," she pleaded on camera. Help find the man who did this.

Much to my surprise, Phyllis had wanted to go on TV. She needed to re-establish some control over her life. And, more importantly, as she told me years later, she "wanted to catch the bastard."

But, not all victims are like Phyllis Cottle.

I've called many victims and their families in my 30 years in journalism. I've been excoriated and hung-up on, and each time I felt -- still feel -- I deserved it.

But many people want to talk. The challenge comes when those people find themselves besieged by the media. "There is this never-ending cycle where victims who do want to participate frequently find themselves having to manage the media," McBride says. "They almost need an advocate to help them do that."

A good example of that is what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Reporters converged on that scarred town. They interviewed grieving families, friends of Lanza's mother, police, first responders, relentlessly. It was the right thing to do at the time. The tragedy transcended Newtown. It put a face on important issues in this country: how we should keep our kids safe at school, how we should treat the mentally ill and how we should decide who has the right to own firearms.

But, at some point, reporters crossed into that "never-ending cycle" McBride spoke of. On the one-year anniversary of the shooting, Alissa Parker, who lost her daughter Emilie, wrote an article for the Huffington Post. In it, she said, "I will be honest, I hate when the media comes into town. I don't like seeing their vans with large satellite dishes parked on every corner. I don't like reporters bothering me to comment or give interviews about the 'latest' findings with the case. I don't like seeing my daughter's picture on the news associated with her violent death. And I really don't like talking about the anniversary of the shooting."

Parker and other parents asked the media to stay away. CNN, among others, obeyed their wishes.

But the state of Connecticut didn't wait for the media to self-regulate. It became, in essence, an advocate for families when it passed a law blocking public disclosure of any visual images depicting those who died in the Newtown shooting on the grounds they would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members."

That's a dangerous move in a country that values freedom of the press. Mary Schwind, managing director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, says, "I don't think the government should be in the position of determining what is good for its citizens to know and what is not good for its citizens to know. The press has routinely had that role in our society. We're going down a dangerous path when the government is making the decision based on emotion."

I agree with Schwind. What if a police investigation is flawed? The public has a right to know how authorities used evidence to arrive at their conclusion.

Still, looking at these pictures or picking up the phone to call someone who's suffered a loss are things I loathe. It's part of our jobs. But it's also our responsibility to decide whether there's a journalistic purpose for invading someone's privacy. Have I made the right call 100% of the time? The best I can tell you is: I tried.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT