Language Matters when Reporting on Crime Victims

By: Sonia Ossorio

Language Matters when Reporting on Crime Victims

The aunt of Megan Waterman, a murdered 22-year-old mother from Maine, refuses to give interviews to reporters who preface every description of her beloved niece with the word “hooker.”

 

Like thousands of other young women lured or forced into the sex industry by pimps (often masquerading as boyfriends), Waterman had a life beyond the tragic last choices she made by advertising as an escort on Craigslist. These women are also mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends — not just hookers and prostitutes. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspapers.

 

The grieving family of Melissa Barthelemy, a 29-year-old murder victim of a suspected serial killer targeting Craigslist escorts, read this excerpt in the New York Daily News over their morning coffee:

 

 “… the deranged killer used hooker Melissa Barthelemy’s cellphone to call her younger sister at least seven times, leaving the teenager in fear of her own life. Then the mystery man admitted he killed the 29-year-old prostitute …”

 

Both Waterman and Barthelemy were found dead in the dense brush off Gilgo Beach in Long Island, N.Y. earlier this year. A police search of the area has uncovered the remains of 10 people, four of whom were women known to advertise on Craigslist.

 

The investigation in Gilgo Beach was sparked when a young woman, Shannon Gilbert, ran screaming from a home in the gated community nearby. Frantic and terrified, Gilbert banged on a neighbor’s door saying someone was trying to kill her. Hysterical, she ran from the home and is still missing.

 

Day in and day out, Gilbert is “a missing prostitute” rather than a missing woman. She’s “a prostitute from New Jersey,” rather than a 24-year-old from New Jersey, thanks to The New York Times.

 

In headlines, in first references, and in almost all other references, women killed at the hands of men who pay them for sex are turned into one-dimensional characters rather than the living, breathing, struggling women that they were. Why are the women prostitutes first, rather than victims?

 

Next time you write about a corrupt businessman, will you refer to him on all references as “the missing Ponzi-scheming thief?” The Ponzi-scheming thief from New Jersey… John Smith, a Ponzi-scheming thief, was last seen hoisting his sailboat … and on and on.

This is a common practice in news reporting that needs to be evaluated. It devalues the individual. It sends a message to the public that these women are disposable — that as prostitutes, this is an acceptable outcome for their lives.

 

Blaming the victim and relying on age-old stereotypes of women serves little journalistic value. In the Gilgo Beach case, the fact is that there is likely a serial killer targeting women who work in prostitution. Four of the 10 bodies found have been identified as women who advertised escort services on Craigslist. But those facts can be conveyed in the story without each woman being called a hooker or prostitute on every reference.

 

Gilbert’s desperate family and the families of the other murder victims in Gilgo Beach do not define their lost loved ones as just prostitutes; it’s time the press does the same. 

 

Sonia Ossorio is executive director of The National Organization for Women in New York. She is a former journalist with Gannett and Knight-Ridder. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, San Jose Mercury News, and Huffington Post among others.

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5 thoughts on “Language Matters when Reporting on Crime Victims

  • July 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm
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    This is a valuable point and it’s time for journalists to rethink this almost reflexive labelling of women who are “allegedly” involved in prostitution. It really does work on the subconscious, exactly as you say. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

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  • July 27, 2011 at 6:56 pm
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    “Next time you write about a corrupt businessman, will you refer to him on all references as ‘the missing Ponzi-scheming thief?’ ” First, the Daily News story did not refer to her by her profession in “all references.” Second, a newspaper most certainly would refer to the Ponzi scheme were said businessman missing. Third, this is a killer targeting prostitutes. If a killer were targeting male drug dealers, would we not ID the victims as such?

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  • July 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm
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    I think it was still in the 1950s when the Kansas City Star used the style of calling Negro women and prostitutes by the first name. My thanks to Ossorio for calling our attention to a practice today, that of identifying women as prostitutes first and women second, that should also be changed.

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  • July 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm
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    Because the story was about about the murder of an alleged prostitute, one of several that are seemingly related, of COURSE she should be identified as such. Megan was apparently murdered NOT because she was a mother, but because she was a hooker. To do anything less may give readers the wrong idea – that ALL mothers are possible future victims, when only sex workers are targeted. I feel sorry for Megan’s family, but facts are facts – and we’re not in the business to make people feel better about their family members when they’re involved in criminal activity. Our primary duty is to report the story as accuracy as possible with all the facts as we know them.

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  • August 17, 2011 at 12:11 pm
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    A small thought. Trying to pick words according to anything other than accurate reporting and description is political, not journalistic. Unless you equate journalism with a specific political party, in which case you abrogate your responsibility to the larger community. Victims of criminals selected for attack based on some specific information must be reported, or the report is of no consequence to those who would read and not learn if they are also targeted. Why side with the criminal in suppressing information, except for the inconvenience it causes to one’s political bent, whatever that may be. The opposite of accuracy is inaccuracy.

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