Reputational damage and empathy loss: The possible negative consequences of crisis reporting


Sensationalized reporting on crises and crisis victims often generates high click numbers. Journalists should be aware, however, that this form of reporting can have negative consequences.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

The present study originated from collaboration between the University of Vienna and Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). In the fall of 2021, 245 citizens from the United Kingdom participated in a study examining the consequences of incorporating negative or irrelevant information about crisis victims in a newspaper article. The article was fictitious, however the scenario was based on an actual crisis. The findings complement existing research on crisis reporting and provide insights that have received little attention to date.

As a result of the "Bumpgate" incident in 2017 involving one of the largest airlines in the USA, United Airlines, a passenger was violently dragged off the plane by security personnel due to overbooking. The incident was captured on video by fellow passengers and generated negative publicity for the airline both in the press and on social media. Most of the coverage focused on the actions of the company, however private and unrelated case information about the passenger, a physician from Kentucky, was reported in several newspaper articles. This information included references about the victim's drinking problem, as well as instances of inappropriate behavior toward his patients.

Crisis reporting research from a different angle

Communication researchers from the University of Vienna and the Victoria University of Wellington note that the majority of research efforts on crisis reporting focus on the impact of a public crisis on the reputation of affected companies – such as United Airlines in this example. Conversely, there is little research on the effects of crisis reporting on the victims of the crisis and on the reputation of the newspaper. "Shedding light on the impact of crisis news coverage on these entities is relevant for several reasons. Journalists may be approached by public relations representatives with information that discredits the victim, in order to deflect responsibility from the company's actions. Journalists may be enticed to rely on such information because of time pressure and because it is attention-grabbing and may increase readership"­ study co-author Sabine Einwiller explains.

The study was carried out as a news experiment with 245 participants from the United Kingdom who were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each of these groups was given a fictitious news article, which was based on actual reporting, focusing on the aforementioned United Airlines incident to review. One of the articles referred to the crisis victim's drinking problem, another dealt with his inappropriate behavior toward patients, and the third article did not contain any information about the past history of the victim. After reading the article, participants were asked to state their perceptions of the newspaper in which the article had allegedly appeared and the crisis victim using response scales.

What are the consequences of irrelevant, negative information about crisis victims in crisis reporting?

Three central findings regarding the specific style of crisis reporting could be derived from the study: For one, the inclusion of negative characteristics of the crisis victim – which are not relevant to the course of the crisis – adversely affects the reputation of the newspaper. Readers expect newspapers to treat their news subjects (such as the crisis victim in this case) with empathy and respect in their reporting. If this expectation is not met, the reputation of the newspaper is negatively affected.

The research found that negative reporting on the character of the crisis victim, which has no connection to the crisis situation, also damaged the victim's reputation.

Furthermore, the sense of empathy toward the crisis victim is impaired when information about a supposed alcohol problem is integrated in the article. This is however not the case when the article reported on an inappropriate patient relationship.

Appeal to journalists and reporters

The study contributes to research on the impact of crisis reporting on crisis victims and on news media. Sabine Einwiller makes an appeal to news professionals with regard to the results: "Journalists must be aware that violating the journalistic code of ethics by reporting on irrelevant negative characteristics of a victim is not only detrimental for the victim but can also significantly hurt the reputation of their news organization."

Publication details

Laufer, D., Einwiller, S., & Neureiter, A. (2023). All the news that is fit to print? Reporting on a victim's character during a crisis. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/1468-5973.12461

Daniel Laufer is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Victoria University of Wellington, NZ.


Sabine Einwiller is Professor of Public Relations Research and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.


Ariadne Neureiter is a predoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since August 2019.