Media Controversy: CNN Draws Ire of State Dept. Over Treatment of Late Ambassador’s Family

By on Monday, September 24, 2012

The late Ambassador Christopher Stevens

CNN drew a sharp rebuke from the State Department this weekend, which called the network’s behavior “disgusting” after the network broke a promise to his grieving family to not report on the existence of a journal kept by slain US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in Benghazi, Libya.

Erik Wemple from the Washington Post gives a detailed description of the negotiations the network undertook with the family. The late Ambassador’s family never had the opportunity to build trust with CNN, because CNN made several critical errors in how they approached and talked with his family – which stand out to me even more so because I have worked with Anderson Cooper’s team at CNN and many others at CNN who have demonstrated sensitivity to grieving military families within the past year. Here are the problems I see that perhaps other journalists and advocates could learn from:
Mistake #1: Not using a higher-up person at CNN to talk with the family. The State Department said it was a relatively junior staff member who called the family, not a higher-up executive. Meredith Edwards is credited on CNN’s website with news-gathering often in tandem with others, but is not a well-known correspondent, on air personality or upper level news executive. A google search about her turns up little information on her role at CNN, other than reporting credits shared with others.
While several media outlets, including CNN, have postulated that the State Department was interested in squashing the journal because it showed the Ambassador’s fears about security, the reality is that the State Department employees entered into a role as a middle man between CNN and the late ambassador’s family without any knowledge of the journal’s contents. State Department officials have said that they never read the journal.
Most trauma survivors, like this bereaved family, are not public figures with news media savvy and PR people to help them. They are private and ordinary people, thrust by tragic circumstances into the public eye. It would make sense that the family would reach out to the State Department for help in negotiating with CNN, when they got a phone call from CNN saying the network had their slain loved one’s journal and wanted to report on it. While plenty are now trying to read political intrigue into the State Department’s involvement, my sense is the PR officials got involved to try to help the family of their late colleague.
A better option would have been to deputize a senior level network executive or a known personality to talk with the family and should have carefully thought about what to say when it called the family to ask for permission to report from the journal. While CNN quickly involved upper level staff when the State Department got involved, CNN staff should have realized at the very outset before placing the first phone call, that calling the late ambassador’s family required the utmost sensitivity and care.

Mistake #2: Not realizing how much the family didn’t trust them and considering the perspective of the family. It’s a minor detail in the Washington Post account, but an important one – the fact that the family declined to give CNN an email address so it could read the transcript of the journal immediately. The State Department served as a middle man to relay the email file to the family because the family didn’t trust CNN enough to provide an email address.

This was a highly publicized death that sparked public statements from the upper most levels of our government and even became fodder on the presidential campaign trail. Horrific images of the dying ambassador were broadcast worldwide and a media maelstrom erupted around his grieving family. This is a family who loved someone who died violently, suddenly and publicly while serving his country.
My sense is that the family had to be reeling in shock and grief – and was just trying to find some footing, when CNN came knocking with news that it had his journal in its possession. To know that a news agency has ALREADY TRANSCRIBED your loved one’s journal and wants to report on it – would add to your feelings of violation. For people who have gone through a traumatic loss and are not accustomed to working with or responding to the media, it may feel easier to trust an intermediary or the organization your loved one served with to assist with a media request.
If you were the grieving family of Ambassador Stevens – would you want to have his journal – as soon as you could? Would you have provided an email address right away? Even if you didn’t want to read it immediately – just so you would have it? I know that when my brother died in Iraq while serving with the US military – I found it important – but hard – to look at his papers and images on his camera that came back months after his death – but in part I felt driven to do that because I wanted to understand better what he did before he died. But others in my own family did not feel that way nor find comfort in it. Each family and person is different, in terms of how they cope with loss.
For the last ambassador’s family the journal presented a gift – but also a conundrum – for how could they grant permission to publish something they had not read? Perhaps the family surmised that CNN might use email contact away from the  eyes of State Department officials  to continue its conversations with the family – which had not gone well to that point – so they were willing to wait and use the State Department as an intermediary. At a certain point, grieving people just can’t take any more and focus on the loss of their loved one – something that news agencies and their timelines often struggle to relate to.
Mistake #3: Asking the family for permission to report on the journal, and then not complying with the family’s wishes. If CNN ultimately planned to report on the journal’s existence and use it for reporting regardless of the family’s response, CNN should have asked the family a very different set of questions than it did, and been very clear about its intentions.
Frankly, one might think that a news agency would simply start reporting from the journal immediately – and not notify the family at all. News agencies can do things like that. CNN didn’t do that – not in the least. They did call the family. I have sometimes talked with families who had no idea how the media got information about a deceased loved one and had to hunt it down for themselves or call the media to try to get access to the materials. There are no good choices in a lot of these scenarios – often only really painful ones.
According to media accounts, CNN told the family that they wanted to report on the contents of the journal and asked the family’s permission. The family declined to give permission, and asked for the journal to be returned so they could read it privately and make a decision about what to do. The family asked CNN to not report on the journal’s existence (which would surely fuel more requests and media pressure on a grieving family) and to not report on its contents. CNN promised to not report on the journal’s contents or its existence to the family.
While CNN has refrained from quoting from the journal or showing it on air – last week Anderson Cooper reported on the existence of the journal and said that CNN had used it in its reporting.
Mistake #4: Getting the short story when the long one might ultimately be more meaningful and insightful for reporting. What did CNN really gain from its reporting about the journal and breaking a promise to the family, that it could not have found in some other way? CNN’s statement makes no reference to the journalistic imperative of the content – rather that it reported on the journal due to questions about the network’s behavior.

The reason CNN ultimately reported Friday on the existence of the journal was because leaks to media organizations incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly returned the journal, which we did.

Let me get this straight – CNN – an international news network with considerable stature – felt it had to report on the journal because of what other people were saying about it? One would think CNN was getting bullied from this statement.My suspicion is CNN knew that its dealings with the family had gone so badly – that it feared another news media outlet would “scoop” it on the journal because the family would never want to deal with CNN again – and those fears overrode the promise to the family. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would hope as this terrible chapter in journalism wends its way into case study status – others might learn from it and not repeat these mistakes when dealing with trauma survivors.
 I am sure that there are many good people who work at CNN who found this treatment of a grieving family deplorable. I have worked with many journalists at CNN and call some of them friends. Many times, I have seen CNN journalists really work to share the stories of grieving families in ways that are respectful and appropriate – which is part of why this whole episode is so bizarre to me.
This episode has likely also cost CNN what might have been a valuable relationship with the family. I would not be surprised if the family were to go to another news outlet down the road, when they are ready to talk.Updated 6:27pm – September 24, 2012
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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