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How the media deals with victims

By Carol Costello
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
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.)

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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.

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