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The Real CSI: Are Crime Victims Being Re-Victimized by Filmmakers?

By Melissa Hook

Ami (left) and Linda White meet the man convicted of raping and mudering Ami's mother and Linda's daughter in Court TV's 'Meeting with a Killer: One Family's Journey.' Right: Gary Brown was convicted in 1986 of murdering Cathy O'Daniel.

A battle is brewing between victims and filmmakers over the use of crime stories for documentary films and reality television. Victims/survivors are outraged when they find that their victimizations have been exploited for commercial gain without their knowledge or participation. Some express distress over what they consider to be sordid re-enactments of the death or retrieval of the body. More importantly, they do not want the precious memories of their loved ones denigrated by victim-blaming or an emphasis on salacious aspects of the victimization.

Some victims/survivors at the center of some reality crime stories, however, have had positive experiences. In NBC's Crime and Punishment, Executive Producer Bill Guttentag presents the journeys of victims and prosecuting attorneys as they seek justice in the courts. "Victims of rape, child abuse, kidnapping, attempted murder and Internet terrorism have come on board with the show to tell their side of the story," says Guttentag. "But it's greater than that. They are motivated by noble reasons. People and their families have suffered tremendous loss with the victimization, and they are trying to see that others do not suffer the same loss."

Some filmmakers may only be interested in the perpetrator's story, the investigation or a justice issue that relates tangentially to the victims. This is turning out to be a harmful and costly oversight. Filmmakers and production companies are facing lawsuits and sponsor boycotts. As these developments begin to materially affect the ability to work in this area, filmmakers should reflect on what constitutes fair and sensitive treatment of victims.

One of the more publicized attacks on reality shows has been the sponsor boycott of Music Behind Bars, an eight-part series on prison rock bands produced by Arnold Shapiro for VH-1. "The shows focused on the music programs' rehabilitative effects on the men and women involved," recounts Shapiro. "But VH-1 was accused of glorifying murderers by showing them having a good time." Also, a series of class action suits on behalf of thousands of emergency room patients (including crime victims) has been filed against New York Times Television for Trauma: Life in the ER. These patients have accused the producers of obtaining releases fraudulently and revealing confidential information about their cases.

"The three issues that victims find hardest to deal with are the glorification of the predator, the poor treatment of the victim story and the absence of notification to the survivors about the show," says Bonnie Bouquereux of the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University,

Some filmmakers emphasize the perpetrators of violent crime in their films, and minimize or mit the victims' stories. Although she worked with victims/survivors in The Execution of Wanda Jean and Together: Stop Violence Against Women, Liz Garbus asserts, "There are films about victims and there are films about perpetrators. I don't think that they are all inclusive." Nor does Jonathan Stack, with whom Garbus collaborated on The Farm: Angola USA, a social justice film about harsh conditions in a Louisiana prison. "I was not thinking about victims because it was not relevant to this particular film," explains Stack.

A theme of the film was the unjust conviction of a rapist. As Stack describes it, the reaction to The Farm was a clear example of how an offender-focused film can be harmful to victims. After The Farm aired nationally, Stack learned that the twin rape victims filmed (with their images but not their voices altered) at their attacker's parole hearing had been traumatized reliving the attack. Moreover, their anonymity as child victims—raped when they were 14-years-old—was lost after they were recognized on screen by members of their hometown community. "It was an ethical conflict," Stack admits. But he was also uninformed about victim service protocols. In most prisons, an advocate would have intervened on behalf of the twins to circumvent the circumstances. It is characteristic of a prison system harsh on inmates to be negligent in their treatment of victims.

Stack revisited the story in Shadows of Doubt, for which he convinced the twins to meet the rapist on camera in a vitriolic confrontation that even the prison warden called, "a crazy idea that only Jonathan could come up with." Stack agrees: "I did something very unethical. When the women went off to meet Simmons, they were not quite ready to do it. They did it to please me." Encounters between inmates and victims, known as "dialogues," generally require months of preparation for both parties so that the angry feelings are addressed before they meet. Dialogues are never authorized if the perpetrator has not confessed to the crime.

Meeting with a Killer, a Court TV special, demonstrates how encounters between victims and violent offenders are actually managed. Producer Lisa F. Jackson tracked counseling sessions for over a year, culminating in the meeting between the inmate convicted of a rape/homicide and two survivors. "This was all about addressing the needs of the participants [offender and victims]," explains Jackson.

"The tension is how far you go with what is right and what is wrong," Stack says. "These are the critical ideas that we all grapple with as we think about making films. We make mistakes." His attitude on victims has expanded. "If you are a political activist, going to the crime victims is critical because the moral barometer passes through their lives."

"The blurring of lines with the news and the syndicated shows is another problem for victims/survivors," says Bouquereux. Today, many film crews following police responders work on reality series. When crime scene images of victims/survivors become part of a syndicated series without their knowledge, they are really upset, particularly when the show has a television lifetime of many years.

Some producers who follow police responders report that they do not notify survivors because they follow hundreds of cases. But is it ethical to argue expediency when human tragedy is the content of the show? In 1999, Barbara Rockwell was called to the scene of her grandson's murder in a drive-by shooting. The police, trained to avoid trauma to survivors, prevented her from viewing his bloody corpse. Unbeknownst to her, the crew from L.A. Detectives filmed the scene and 18 months later she saw images of her dead grandson on the TV screen, followed by a shot of herself in the background sobbing. Rockwell filed a lawsuit but later accepted a letter of apology from the series producers.

Carroll Ellis, director of victim services at the Fairfax County (Virginia) Police Department, has run a homicide survivor support group for 20 years. "Seeing references to or images of a dead loved one on television with no preparation is going to have drastic effects," Ellis explains. "Survivors are going to be angry, emotional; they could have a heart attack or a stroke. The passions, the feelings and the trauma are just that deep-seated."

For some survivors, violent or tragic depictions of their murdered loved one are unbearable. The daughter of New York television executive Donna Zapata was murdered in Seattle in 1993. Mia Zapata was a well-known local musician, and the mystery around her death has been the subject of several news and crime shows. "I am distressed by shows that re-enact the crime or anything that focuses on her death," discloses Zapata. She despairs that people should become famous because of how they died.

Still, it is possible and necessary to keep track of the victims and their stories. Robert Port shot 195 episodes of Arrest and Trial following an LAPD SWAT team. "I spent a great deal of time speaking to victims and police officers before I interviewed them, to educate them about the process," Port explains. "The golden rule is, Respect to the law enforcement agencies, respect to the victims at all cost." When Port did not contact the families involved in the response call, he avoided using recognizable body shots and identifying victims.

The popularity of reality forensic shows on cable television is having a powerful impact on homicide survivors. "I have heard from many victims that they turn on the television and see a story about the murder," says advocate Anne Seymour. "It may be in the public domain, but is it right that it has been developed and broadcast with no input from them, with no sensitivity to their privacy or their concerns?"

The producers of forensic shows Cold Case Files and American Justice on A & E always attempt to include the victim story if they can find the survivors. Executive Producer Bill Kurtis and Producer Michael Harvey of Cold Case Files are lawyers and know the legal issues, but they also see value in survivor involvement. They contact the family upfront and invite them to participate, whether or not they appear on screen. "Once you invest someone in participating in the show, they want it to succeed," Kurtis maintains. "It becomes part of the redemptive process because they feel that they are doing something to memorialize their family member." Harvey makes a point of reaching out to the families. " I tell the people that are giving me their story—the most tragic thing that will ever happen to them—that it is an important and fragile piece of their life that I will treat with dignity and respect."

Laura Fleury, A & E's executive producer of Cold Case Files and American Justice, underscores the company policy: "To put a face on the victims and the family members." A&E never uses re-enactments or actors, for example. Nor does it "sugarcoat" the horror of the crime, which some survivors find disturbing. "We face ethical dilemmas all the time," admits Fleury

Court TV (executives did not agree to an interview for this article) does not appear to have a stated policy on victim notification or inclusion for its forensic series. However, Lisa F. Jackson, producer of Court TV's Psychic Detectives, sees communication with survivors in pre-production as a top priority. "They know that I'm making the film and that my intentions are to honor the person who is dead. That is not an easy call to make, but I make it every time."

Moreover, Jackson takes care not to include material that denigrates the victim. "A lot of films blame the victim or allow the audience to feel superior to the victim," she says. Jackson describes how she omitted from the storyline an investigator's assumption that the victim had been cavorting with a prostitute the evening of his disappearance. "Somebody might think it is a wondrously sordid detail, but it is superfluous. The story is just as tragic and mysterious without it."

Homicide survivors do not have rock-solid convictions about what filmmakers should do with their loved one's story, so it is important to ask them. Gaby Monet, who produces Autopsy for HBO, always contacts the victim's family once her team decides to do a case, even though survivors could express strong opposition when the focus is a clinical examination of a corpse. "I welcome the families," explains Monet. "Most of them are eloquent about what happened. They see copies of the show before they decide to participate." When survivors say that they do not want the story done, Monet doesn't do it. Being presented with a choice has as much to do it with a survivor's response to a film proposal and may explain how he/she came to accept the use of disturbing body shots in Autopsy.

Filmmakers who do not contact victims when they develop crime stories reason that it is a judgment call dependent on the individual circumstances of the case. Their ability to work with an offender or an investigator may be dependent on no contact with the victims/survivors; or they fear victim/survivor interference with the process; or they fear a lawsuit, even though victims/survivors have no legal rights to prevent such films from being made.

"The sum total of behavior that does not take victim concerns into account has created an adversarial situation," says documentarian Jeff Tuchman. "The rights of filmmakers and victims  are in conflict with each other. But it is spurious to believe that by not informing people that a film is being made—and asking them to register their thoughts and feelings (on or off camera)—that you are protecting yourself. People get their voices heard by litigation, so this is not an issue to be ignored."

Filmmakers certainly do not intentionally disregard the rights and memories of victims and survivors; rather, filmmakers are simply not thinking about them. It isn't surprising that victims/survivors are treated poorly because we have not yet learned as a culture what sensitivity to victims entails. The victim services discipline has evolved over 30 years because crime victims require advocacy and assistance in securing their rights and addressing their needs. 

Victims' personal tragedies have become a highly marketable product for film and television, so it is essential that filmmakers educate themselves about victim sensitivity and question their process when they work on crime stories. "It is a legitimate conversation to have, as to whether there are areas with respect to the rights or desires of crime victims that should become a matter of policy," says Tuchman. "Networks, filmmakers and news organizations have policies about a lot of things. There should be a generalized awareness of crime victims, whether they have been objectively wronged or they perceive themselves to have been wronged."

Melissa Hook is an author, national victim advocate and consultant on documentary films.


For a response from filmmaker Jonathan Stack to this article, as well as a rebuttal from Melissa Hook, click here.