Blog PostsMedia & PsychologyMarket-Driven JournalismThe Kitty Genovese Murder and the Misreported Bystander Effect

The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Misreported Bystander Effect

A weird and horrifying murder story with implications for publishing.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York in 1964.

She was 28 years old and the assailant knifed her repeatedly near her home before dragging her into a nearby alley to rape her. She died in the ambulance on her way to the hospital.

Two weeks after her murder, The New York Times ran the story of how 38 people saw Genovese get stabbed, raped, and murdered in the street — and no-one came to her aid.

This became known in scientific literature as the bystander effect where individuals are less likely to help a victim the greater the number of bystanders. And Kitty Genovese’s murder is since used in numerous psychology textbooks.

A problem, though, was that Kitty Genovese’s murder wasn’t accurately reported.

There were witnesses to the murderer, yes, but they didn’t see enough of what happened to even understand that an assault was taking place. They reportedly thought it was a couple arguing.

There was no bystander effect.

And this is where it gets weird.

Kitty Genovese and The New York Times

Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect
Kitty Genovese and The Bystander Effect.

Kitty Genovese’s murder sparked a number of scientific studies and these studies managed to prove the bystander effect to be real (as a form of diffusion of responsibilities). One could argue that The New York Times got away with their misleading article on that specific occasion.

In 2016, the year when the man convicted of Kitty Genovese’s murder, Winston Moseley, died in prison, The New York Times appended an editor’s note to the online archive of the original article. It reads:

“Later reporting by The Times and others has called into question significant elements of this account. Subsequent Times coverage includes a review of the case on the 40th anniversary; the obituary of the killer; an essay and video on the case; and a Times Insider account.”

Coincidentally, the popular HBO show Girls ran an episode inspired by Kitty Genovese’s death just the day before word got out on Winston Moseley’s death. And in an editorial that same year, after numerous critical articles published about their reporting, The New York Times wrote:

“The facts, however, turned out to be quite different. Yes, some neighbors had ignored Ms. Genovese’s pleas for help. But later investigations found that only a couple of them had a clear sense of what was happening, or had even caught glimpses of the attacks as they occurred. Many among the 38 thought they were hearing a fight between drunken people or perhaps lovers. But reality has, to some degree, been beside the point. A paradigm of danger and indifference in an anonymous city had taken hold.”

To add an extra layer of weirdness to the story, the convicted murderer Winston Moseley also got to publish his thoughts in The New York Times already back in 1977… and it’s a strange read as he in passing suggests that his actions came to help push society in the right direction:

“The crime was tragic, but it did serve society, urging it as it did to come to the aid of its members in distress or danger.”

As for the bystander effect, there are implications also for our digital age specifically. In 2017, two teenage boys raped a 15 year old girl while live streaming the assault on Facebook Live.

NPR (National Public Radio) wrote:

“About 40 people may have watched the rapes on Facebook as they happened, but none of them reported the crimes to the police. That’s raising ethical and legal questions about those who witnessed the crime, including whether they can be charged for their inaction.”

So, why do I feel that it’s important to tell the story about Kitty Genovese and The New York Times and to write about these tragic events on a blog about public relations?

The Case for Making Online Records Available

Just as much as we need journalists to report the news on a day to day basis, we need each and every report to be properly indexed, archived, and searchable.

It’s unreasonable, of course, to expect all news reports to be 100% accurate, but by making online archives public we get another chance to better connect the dots of how our societal narratives are being shaped.

Yes, the New York Times misreported the events in the Kitty Genovese case. But by allowing the general public to search their online archive of old news without doctoring them in hindsight, we all get a better chance of understanding the world we live in today.

And this is where The New York Times should serve as a shining example of journalistic importance for many online news publishers today.

In short: Journalistic errors can be mitigated by online transparency.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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