The Media Marginalization of Crime Victims

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By Michele Hanisee
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We have noted multiple times how the California Legislature, in pursuit of “criminal justice reform,” has repeatedly ignored the victims of crime and instead focused compassion on criminal defendants. However, it is not just the Legislature that has marginalized crime victims. The media has contributed as well.

One glaring example is the media omitting names of victims and instead identifying them by generic descriptors such as their sex or occupation. Likewise, any recitation of the crimes frequently downplays the brutal facts and trauma to the victim. This media practice was highlighted in a recent spate of news articles recounting the California Supreme Court’s virtually unprecedented overturning of ten clemency grants by former Governor Jerry Brown on the grounds that Brown had abused his power.

Take, for example, this story which covered the pardon and commutation reversals. While the murderers were referred to by name and some of their individual circumstances, their victims were merely referred to as “a person,” “a driver,” “a man” or “a woman.” Not once did the name of a victim appear. In a similar vein are these stories referring  to victims as a “store’s owner,” a “bystander” or a “liquor store owner.”

Likewise, the facts of crimes are given short shrift. If the media bothered to inform readers of those facts, they might provide some insight into why the pardons and commutations were reversed. Typical of media reporting are stories covering the reversal of commutation of murderer Joe Hernandez: his commutation was opposed by the LA County District Attorney’s Office. In one story readers were merely informed that Hernandez “killed a rival gang member one night, then shot two other men whom he mistakenly believed were part of a rival gang. One survived,” while the other story recounted the crime as the murder of “a rival gang member and a bystander.”

Here, in sharp contrast to the descriptions above, is how the 9th Circuit habeas ruling recounted Hernandez’s crimes: “Torres, upon seeing Hernandez and Cota, shouted his Hayes gang affiliation. Unimpressed, Hernandez responded by getting off the bicycle, brandishing his gun, and shooting Torres several times. Torres, who was not armed, died as a result of the multiple gunshot wounds.”

Later that same evening, Hernandez stopped a car containing Silva and Gonzalez and “approached Silva on the passenger side of the car, and asked from where he hailed. Silva, who was not a gang member, responded that he was from Rosemead. Hernandez put a gun to Silva’s head, and ordered him to get out of the car and kneel on the ground, placing his hands behind his head. Hernandez told Silva that he was going to die, then fulfilled his prophecy, shooting Silva in the head. Silva died as a result of the gunshot wound.” Gonzalez then struggled for the gun which “discharged, striking Gonzalez in the chest. Hernandez then shot Gonzalez twice more, striking him in the shoulder and back. Leaving Gonzalez for dead, Hernandez and Cota drove Gonzalez’s car away from the scene.”

In a similar vein, several of the stories above went on to recount the reversals of a pardon for the murderer of Manijeh Eshaghoff, which we covered in a previous blog. In this case, Mrs. Eshaghoff was reduced to a “liquor store owner” shot and killed during an “attempted (sic) robbery.” Contrast that version of events with the facts as recited in our prior blog.

The facts of these cases are easy to research. Most are well documented in the detailed written opinions of the courts and available for free online. So why is this readily available information being omitted from news stories by the media?

Failing to name the victims of crime in stories about their perpetrator, and instead substituting a descriptive label, dehumanizes and marginalizes crime victims and renders them mere props in a story.

Failing to include the horrific descriptive facts of the crime similarly serves to dismiss the harm done. The media owes its readers, viewers, and innocent victims of crime, better.

Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles. To contact a Board member, click here.
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