Media relations and surviving families
I try to be upfront with reporters about what may be possible, in terms of locating a family or expert to speak with them. On some topics, like suicide, it can be harder to find a family that is open to sharing. But many families see sharing about their loved one is a way to honor their service and life. So some families are open to it.
When I reach out to a family and ask them to share their story in a public setting, I am vouching for that reporter with my credibility, and often asking the family to make a decision about sharing something that is deeply personal to them. So it’s important I know what the journalist is planning and the angle he or she is going to take, so I can talk with the family about what to expect and they don’t feel surprised.
I had a photographer contact me recently with some questions. He had been embedded with a unit in Afghanistan and while the unit was in a firefight, was taking photos. He realized later that he had captured images of this family’s loved one’s final moments. He never published those photos, but he wanted to talk with the family, offer to share his experience if they wanted to ask him any questions, and offer them the opportunity to see the photos if they desired to do so. This was not for media coverage – just a private talk he wanted to have, that he felt he ought to have, with this family. He was making a special trip to visit them, but wanted to know from me what kinds of questions he should be prepared to answer from them. He wanted to know what he could say that might comfort them or be helpful for them in coping with their loss.
Unfortunately, in this line of work, sometimes we do get a few challenging requests from journalists. The biggest challenge is usually time and deadlines in the news business, that are beyond everyone’s control. Sometimes it’s hard to find a family on a quick deadline that is in a few hours that is open to talking. Families often need a little time to consider a story request. Occasionally a story concept will be unrealistic. And sometimes, the journalist has a pre-conceived script in mind or is just focused on the story angle and oblivious to the fact that there are people involved.