An open letter to journalists reporting on military casualties:
A military accident or service member death is important news. If you are a journalist of a major news network or a military website, you cover military casualties. As a freelance writer and journalist in the military community, I get that. I understand the importance of reporting a story as soon as information becomes available. But as a military spouse, I also know the pain and heartache that occurs when such stories are breaking news. You may not be aware of the impact your news stories have on the spouses and children of deployed service members. So let me enlighten you.
When service members go missing during deployment
On Saturday morning, I woke up and looked at my phone (as one does). There were notifications on every one of my social media apps. I saw the same story plastered everywhere: “3 Marines missing in Osprey crash off Australian Coast.” Many articles listed the unit and mission that was involved. Even though it wasn’t my husband’s unit, my heart raced. I knew exactly where that unit was based. I had friends whose spouses were currently deployed with them. Immediately I wondered, “Is it those spouses missing? Are my friends okay?”
As I continued reading, I became more concerned. Most news sources repeated the line, “The names of the missing have not yet been released.” This is a serious problem. This is why I am calling the journalism community to task. You simply should not release information about any military crashes, accidents, mishaps, or deaths, until the families have been notified. No wife, husband, child, or parent should learn of their loved one’s death through social media.
“I am calling the news journalism community to task. You simply should not release information about service member crashes, accidents, mishaps, or deaths, until the families have been notified.”
When Marines deploy, some of them have communication with their families by phone or email. Others are able to connect much less often. When an accident occurs, especially one where a service member is suspected to be missing or injured, there is a complete communication blackout. No one is allowed to call or email out, even those who are completely healthy and unaffected. There are over 1,000 Marines currently serving that unit off the coast of Australia. That means at least 1,000 families (spouses, parents, children, siblings) saw the news on Saturday and did not know if their loved one was alive. Every one of those families prayed and worried and held their breaths, waiting for uniformed men to come knocking on their door. Parents waited for a daughter-in-law to call and let them know whether or not their son was alive. That level of pain and heartache is unimaginable… and it was completely unnecessary.
There is no reason the news channels can’t wait a few more hours to report a story. There is nothing that anyone could have done to assist the search and rescue efforts. If the news was released after the missing service member’s families had been notified, then none of those 1,000 families would have to worry, “Is it mine?” They would instantly know that because they hadn’t received the dreaded knock on the door that their loved one was safe. There is a simple solution: Don’t publish an article unless you can factually state that families of the wounded/deceased/missing have already been notified. Without that line, journalists are simply creating an environment of fear and panic.
“There is no reason news channels can’t wait a few more hours to report the story of a service member’s death.”
Should military spouses not watch the news?
Some may argue that the journalists are only doing their job, and that military spouses who are prone to be anxious or over-react should simply avoid watching the news during deployment. This was good advice 10 years ago, when most news came from TV reports and newspapers. Now that social media is such a prevalent part of our lives, avoiding such news is simply impossible. Even spouses who choose not to watch the news will still be alerted to tragedies that are trending on social media. This incident was ‘trending’ on Facebook by Saturday afternoon. Anyone with the CNN app on their phone received the news as a breaking news alert on Saturday morning. Now that children as young as 9 or 10 use cell phones and sometimes smart phones, we must be aware of the possibility of a military child learning of their parent’s death through social media or an alert on their phone. This is irresponsible and unacceptable.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, wants to delay the initial reporting of troop casualties until all families have been notified. This is a wise decision. It will give military families more accurate information and allow them not to panic whenever they read the news. ABC News found fault with this policy, claiming that it gives the American public “less information and transparency” about the Afghanistan conflict. This is ridiculous. The public can be informed of an event one hour after it happens, or three days after it happens. As long as they are aware that service members are still fighting and dying all over the world, that is all that matters. To military families waiting in anxious fear, however, those hours and days make a huge difference. Journalists from military websites and major news channels need to find the balance between informing the public and respecting military families. Waiting until families have been notified is the right way to handle those sensitive and tragic situations.