Families and media weigh in on Arlington funeral coverage policy
March 18, 2009
ARLINGTON, Va. — Before a servicemember is laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, a casualty affairs officer asks the family if they want media coverage of the funeral.
"Our policy is to respect the privacy of each family funeral and to facilitate respectful media coverage, only if the family wants it," according to the script used by casualty affairs officers, which was obtained by Stars and Stripes.
The script was developed after the Army reviewed the policy for media coverage at Arlington, which was prompted by reporters’ complaints that they were kept too far away from one ceremony.
"In the event you decline any media coverage, which is absolutely your right, media will not be notified or permitted to attend," according to the script.
The script lays out other ground rules for the media as well.
"If you do allow media coverage, reporters covering the service are not permitted to approach you directly before, during or following the service at the grave site or inside the cemetery," the script said. "Interviews you wish to offer can be conducted outside the front entrance to Arlington National Cemetery or at a pre-designated location."
The script also explains what to expect if families agree to allow media in.
"If you permit media coverage, broadcast and print media (reporters and photographers) will be placed in a stationary media area at a respectful distance with a visual line of [sight] to the service," the script says. "Recording of the service itself will be available only by the recording of natural, ambient sound."
Families who opt for media coverage can change their mind later, the script says.
While the script is meant to balance the rights of families and the media, some argue it is too restrictive.
Gina Gray, a former cemetery spokeswoman who claims she was fired for urging more media access to funerals at Arlington, said the script is inconsistent with the Army’s policy of putting families’ wishes first.
"If the family is what truly matters, then the families should define what ‘coverage’ means," Gray said. "It will be different for every family, but the option should be available to have reporters where the family wants — even if it’s right next to them — as long as it doesn’t interfere with ceremonial protocol.
"Unfortunately, the lack of oversight at Arlington National Cemetery has historically shown that their broad interpretation of these guidelines puts reporters at a distance that’s more ridiculous than reasonable," she said.
Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Human Resources Command, said most of the families she has spoken with want media that do attend to be as far from the ceremony has possible.
"This is the family’s ceremony and a time to say goodbye to their loved one," she said. "In many of those cases, had media been allowed any closer, those families would have closed the funeral to the media and the story lost."
It helps families to know that they have options in how they deal with the media, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps families of fallen servicemembers.
"I think the script tries to help families think about the issues at hand when thinking about media coverage for their loved one’s funeral," Neiberger-Miller said.
Neiberger-Miller knows firsthand what it is like to deal with the media after a loved one is killed in action. Her brother, Spc. Christopher T. Neiberger, was killed in Iraq in August 2007 and buried at Arlington that month.
"I think a lot of times people don’t realize that a surviving family is thrust into a whirlwind of media attention when their loved one is killed, quite often," she said.
James Sheeler, who teaches journalism classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he feels the script is a fair compromise between what families and the media need, but he has some reservations.
"I think a flaw in the script might be that it doesn’t give the families enough power over the decisions of coverage," said Sheeler, who wrote the book "Final Salute," about Marine casualty affairs officers.
Sheeler said he and a photographer developed a close relationship with the family of a Navy corpsman, Christopher A. Anderson, while traveling with them to Arlington. Anderson was killed in Iraq in December 2006 while traveling with them to Arlington.
"We stayed in the same hotel as the family and spent hours with them, promising to tell their story," Sheeler said. "On the day of the funeral, we met in the Arlington waiting room with a legless Marine sergeant whose life Christopher Anderson had saved, and witnessed the touching reunion as he sat in his wheelchair and embraced his corpsman’s parents, telling them: ‘If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be able to hold my daughter on my lap.’"
"Under these new regulations, we conceivably may not have been allowed to hear those words or capture the photographs that both families now hold dear."
But Alison Hernandez said she did not feel pressured one way or the other when asked if she wanted media to cover the funeral of her husband, Army Cpl. Joseph M. Hernandez, who was buried at Arlington on Jan. 23.
Hernandez also said she was glad media kept their distance at her husband’s funeral, explaining it would have been distracting to have photographers taking pictures next to her.
"I feel like it would have been like they were intruding," she said.
Hernandez’s husband was the first enlisted soldier to receive full military honors under a new Army policy extending such honors to all soldiers killed in combat, regardless of rank.
She said she was glad the media were there to capture the moment.
"It’s something special for my husband because it shows that he was honored for doing what he did, and it’s something that my kids can look back on."