Army forms military funeral coverage panel
September 30, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — Journalists will now have a say on what the media can and cannot do when covering funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
Army Secretary Peter Geren has signed a new media policy for the cemetery that calls for the creation of an oversight board that will include representatives from the cemetery, the Army and the media, including Stars and Stripes.
The board will serve as a forum to discuss "what is working well, what needs to be improved, what needs to be addressed in the future," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
Boyce said the board is expected to hold its first meeting in late October, and it should meet again before Veterans Day.
"The cemetery itself personifies the respect that we all have for our veterans," Boyce said. "We want to make sure that the media are part of that process, as transparent as possible, but while also respecting the wishes of the families and the deceased."
Media coverage of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery became an issue in April, when the Washington Post ran a column about how the media was kept so far away from the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq that reporters could not hear the service.
In July, Geren ordered a review of the media policy for covering funerals at Arlington National Cemetery following another Washington Post column about Gina Gray, a former cemetery spokeswoman who said she was fired for urging more media access to funerals.
In an e-mail Monday, Gray said her problems dealt with how close media could get to funerals.
"There were occasions when the placement of the media was downright ridiculous and defied common sense," she said. "In one case, media was placed across the street from a burial and this was after the family expressed their intent to have coverage of the service."
The new policy does not say exactly how far media must be from the service, but it guarantees that reporters should be close enough to visually record the service using "standard equipment, without intruding on the ceremony or the military formation."
Under the new policy, family members will have three options for media coverage of their loved-ones’ funerals: No coverage, visual coverage, or visual coverage and limited audio coverage.
The limited audio coverage option means that only the chaplain or the main speaker at a funeral will wear a microphone so that his or her comments can be recorded.
The script that casualty affairs officers will read from when asking family members what type of media coverage they would like was not available on Monday, Boyce said.
Ron Martz, of the group Military Reporters and Editors, said the new policy is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough because it prohibits family members from talking to the media at the cemetery before or after the service.
"We would agree with that if it is the family’s wish," Martz said in an e-mail.
"But we have had instances in which members of local media have been asked to accompany family members to the ceremony to witness and record for posterity, and for those in their hometowns who cannot attend the ceremony, these final moments in which the service member is honored for his or her sacrifice.
"It should be the family of the service member being honored, not officials at Arlington or the Department of the Army, who should have the final voice in these matters," he said.
With an average of 30 funerals per day at the cemetery, graveside interviews with family members will be impossible most of the time, Boyce said.
"Following the actual services, there are other things that have to be done at graveside as well," he said. "So on those occasions where graveside interview would not be possible, the Army will continue to work with the media [and] the family to see what could be done nearby or at the front gate or at the visitor’s center."