The Public Relations BlogPR TrendsThe News BusinessThe 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.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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In 1964, Winston Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese.

Kitty Genovese was a 28-year-old New York res­id­ent, and the assail­ant knifed her repeatedly near her home before drag­ging her into a nearby alley, where he raped her. 

Genovese died in the ambu­lance on her way to the hospital. 

Two weeks after the dread­ful event, 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.

That was how the story was repor­ted.
But that wasn’t exactly what happened.

Here goes:

There Was No Bystander Effect

The dread­ful murder of Kitty Genovese became known in sci­entif­ic lit­er­at­ure as the bystand­er effect, where indi­vidu­als are less likely to help a vic­tim if there are sev­er­al bystand­ers. And Genovese’s murder is used as a case study in numer­ous psy­cho­logy textbooks. 

Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect
Kitty Genovese was bru­tally raped and murdered.

However, the prob­lem was that the media didn’t accur­ately report Kitty Genovese’s murder. 

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

There was no “bystand­er effect.”
But the bystand­er effect still proved to be a nat­ur­al phenomenon.

Kitty Genovese’s murder sparked sev­er­al sci­entif­ic stud­ies, prov­ing the bystand­er effect accur­ate (as a form of dif­fu­sion of respons­ib­il­it­ies).

One could argue that The New York Times got away with a mis­lead­ing art­icle since it led to a psy­cho­lo­gic­al discovery. 

Kitty Genovese and The New York Times

In 2016, 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 before word got out on Winston Moseley’s death. And in an edit­or­i­al that same year, after numer­ous crit­ic­al art­icles 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 of the 38 thought they heard a fight between drunk­en people or lov­ers. But real­ity has, to some degree, been beside the point. A paradigm of danger and indif­fer­ence in an anonym­ous city had taken hold.”

The con­victed mur­der­er, Winston Moseley, pub­lished his thoughts in The New York Times in 1977. It’s a strange read as Mosely, in passing, sug­gests that his actions came to push soci­ety in a pos­it­ive 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 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 it’s essen­tial to tell the story about Kitty Genovese and The New York Times?

The Case for Keeping Online Records

As much as we need journ­al­ists to report the news daily, we need each report to be cor­rectly indexed, archived, and searchable. 

It’s unreas­on­able, of course, to expect all news to be 100% accur­ate. By mak­ing online archives pub­lic, we get anoth­er chance to con­nect the dots of how the media shapes our soci­et­al narratives.

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.

  • Journalistic errors can be doc­u­mented, researched, and mit­ig­ated — if pub­lish­ers keep their online records avail­able to the public.

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

Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations obviously; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that it's good to have hobbies outside work.

The cover photo has

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