I often bridle at news articles that focus on a single individual who has suffered in some way, as opposed to on the wider issue and the many others who have suffered similarly. Often, the article will also simplistically demonize a particular thing or entity as the sole cause of blame.

In such articles, the thing being demonized is the 'scapegoat', but what is the term for a victim arbitrarily picked out from many?

'Martyr' doesn't fit as typically they (the martyr) die pursuing an abstracted goal or cause. The unknown soldier is a good example of a martyr, but they fought for something and remain anonymous. The victims I am trying to find a term for are often acknowledged in sympathetic terms, but not revered, and their now unattainable aims always seem to be cruelly highlighted.

'Figurehead' is another term I considered, as the word often used for someone prominent in a campaign, but they are not always involved in campaign - and rarely lead - a campaign.

An example of this would be from today's Metro newspaper (UK):

Patrick dreamed of studying at Cambridge. But the 17-year-old turned turned to drugs from Silk Road before dying of an overdose as his friends on Skype looked on helplessly.

The hallmarks of this are that the victim is highlighted to make a point, and is caricatured, their dashed aspirations always being emphasised, rather than being presented in a sympathetic light.

What is the term for this?

  • Apologies for any bad grammar/spelling it's difficult to check these things on my phone. – Pureferret Nov 15 '13 at 9:00
  • 'Unknown Soldier' works in some cases, but I'd not want to compare an anonymous victim who probably died a hero's death fighting for freedom with a near-unknown person who, while perhaps having had a tough life, died ultimately as a result of poor and selfish lifestyle choices. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 15 '13 at 9:25
  • @EdwinAshworth my point is that the two (unknown soldier and the case in questions) are different, so shouldn't be compared, and thus is reason not to call my example a 'martyr'. Perhaps this was a bad example as often the sort of person 'highlighted' has not had poor life choices. – Pureferret Nov 15 '13 at 15:53

I feel like poster boy (or, the gender-neutral term poster child) is a better choice than martyr to describe this.

According to Wikipedia:

Metaphorically, "poster child" is used for a person of any age whose attributes or behaviour are emblematic of a known cause, movement, circumstance or ideal. Under this usage, the person in question is labeled as an embodiment or archetype. This signifies that the very identity of the subject is synonymous with the associated ideal; or otherwise representative of its most favorable or least favorable aspects.

The meaning is slightly different in that in the most traditional sense of the word "poster child" the real human identity of the person is lost in favor of the idea of what they're suffering from, and it sounds like your concern is too much focus on that individual and not enough on the larger issues at hand.

You could perhaps coin, "poster victim" to highlight the idea that these sorts of articles focus exclusively on the individual's victimhood?


Would you consider the ironic use of the idiom to make a martyr of?

I found the following contextual quote in OED for example: He who perishes in needless dangers, is the Devil's Martyr.

If you are adamant about a single word expression I recommend objectified. Objectification is defined in OED as

The demotion or degrading of a person or class of people to the status of a mere object as in sexual objectification of women by the mass media.

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