The recent news of a serial killer identified as the “Shopping Cart Killer” in the Virginia area once again highlights the insatiable appetite for crime news, particularly with respect to serial murder. Typically in these narratives, the victims are often summarized simply as a number, with their names and histories subsumed by every last detail of the offender. For example, most people would be able to identify Jack the Ripper as a notorious serial killer who was never caught. Few would be able to point to any significant details of the five women commonly cited as victims of Jack the Ripper — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows and Mary Jane Kelly. Author Hallie Rubenhold (2019, Page 292) argues these women “were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that in itself is enough.”

So far, suspected victims of the “Shopping Cart Killer” include Tonita Lorice Smith, 39, Allene Elizabeth “Beth” Redmon, 54, and Cheyenne Brown, 29. The stories of victims frequently get lost in our intense focus on the offenders in these cases. Is this a product of our desensitization to the 24-hour news cycle? Or is there something else here at play?

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Dr. Elizabeth Gurian

The intense focus on serial killers, rather than their victims, may be attributed to a condition known as “compassion fatigue.” Psychologist Charles Figley defines this condition as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress” (Gabbert, 2020). Symptoms include emotional changes such as numbness, depression or a “decreased sense of purpose” (Gabbert, 2020).  Compassion fatigue has been researched and documented with respect to professions in fields like health care, most recently with respect to COVID-19, but it also has applications for the general population, and the 24-hour news cycle. Psychologist Paul Slovic explains, “If we’re talking about lives, one life is tremendously important and valuable and we’ll do anything to protect that life, save that life, rescue that person. But as the numbers increase, our feelings don’t commensurately increase as well.” (Wen, 2020). That is to say, we have a lesser emotional response and become desensitized as victim numbers increase.

The media play an important role in informing the public and in the construction of news stories. McCombs and Shaw (1972, Page 177) argue, “the press may not be successful in telling people what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling people what to think about”. Silverstone (1999, Page 6) argues the media is “a constant presence in our everyday lives, as we switch in and out, on and off, from one media space, one media connection to another.” The public’s reliance on the media for information also indicates they play a role in determining what is “newsworthy”. “Newsworthy” items are commonly those that breach “normal” expectations of social life (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke & Roberts, 1978, Page 53). Violence is inherently newsworthy, and while the tendency is to focus on offenders in crime stories, the media can shift their framework to consider how crime news is relayed to the public.

Except for cases of escaped suspects, researchers argue guidelines for media organizations should include not naming the perpetrator; not using photos or likenesses of the perpetrator (except for images that may reveal useful psychological or behavioral elements of the offender); not using names, photos or likenesses of past perpetrators; and do report on everything else about the crimes including victim details (Lankford & Madfis, 2018; Meindl & Ivy, 2018). To reduce the intense focus on the offenders in these cases, the media should also eliminate anniversary reporting focusing on the offender and their attacks or death (Gurian, 2021). It is important to recognize the negative effects on intensely focusing on offenders in crime news and the potential to become numb to the lives of victims lost in these cases. Rather, we must reframe the narrative to avoid reducing victims in these stories to just a number. We must acknowledge each of the victims’ names and make their lives an important part of these narratives in every story.  

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REFERENCES:

Gabbert, E. (2018). Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/02/is-compassion-fatigue-inevitable-in-an-age-of-24-hour-news

Gurian, E.A. (2022). Serial and mass murder: Understanding multicide through offending patterns, explanations, and outcomes. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J. & Roberts, B. (1978). Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. Basingstoke: McMillan.

Lankford, A. & Madfis, E. (2018). Don’t name them, don’t show them, but report everything else: A pragmatic proposal for denying mass killers the attention they seek and deterring future offenders. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(2), 260-279.

McCombs, M.E. & Shaw, D.L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

Meindl, J.N. & Ivy, J.W. (2018). Reducing media-induced mass killings: Lessons from suicide prevention. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(2), 242-259.

Silverstone, R. (1999). Why study the media? London: Sage.

Wen, T. (2020). What makes people stop caring?  BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200630-what-makes-people-stop-caring

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Dr. Elizabeth Gurian is an associate professor of criminal justice and associate director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Norwich University.

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