Covering news involving your own people is a unique challenge for a news organization, particularly when the news is tragic.
"This is what journalism is all about," says "Evening News" anchor Bob Schieffer. "We are trained to deal with tough stories. It's always harder when it involves someone you know, but you always have to fall back on your training."
"I think the basic issue is finding the right balance between covering the incident which in essence happened to involve our people…and balancing that with the fact that there are a lot of other people who this has happened to," says CBS News Vice President Paul Friedman.
CBS' coverage, says "Evening News" Executive Producer Rome Hartman, had to reflect the fact that "this is the kind of terrible news that thousands of families have received, and this time it was our family. It's no more serious or awful or tragic than what other families have experienced, but also no less so." He adds that when people at CBS first heard the news, "our first instinct was compassionate, not journalistic."
May 29, the day of the attack, was Memorial Day. The "Evening News" covered the holiday before reporting on the attack. Schieffer ended the show with this:
Today, we understood a little better what so many families and friends of the fallen and the wounded have gone through."We wanted to make sure that we didn't leave the impression that just because it had happened to our people that now this was a big story and an important story," says Schieffer.
This war has taken a heavy toll including two thousand, four hundred and 59 American military people who have been killed and more than 18,000 Americans who have been wounded as well as 71 journalists from around the world who have died. Added together, the statistics are shocking.
But days like today are reminders that this is not about numbers -- each of those numbers is a person, a person that others know or love or depend on.
We live in an era of reality shows, and we see so much on television that even war can seem artificial, but what we saw today was not a show, it was reality where the bullets are real and the fallen and the wounded have wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and children.
Tonight, our thoughts are with all of those who once got the news that we got today, and especially with the families of Kimberly Dozier, Paul Douglas and James Brolan.
The "Evening News" followed the story of the attack all last week, with the focus shifting to the recovery of Dozier, who had been transported to an American hospital in Germany. On June 2, after the name of the Army captain who was killed with Douglas and Brolan, James Funkhouser, had been released, the "Evening News" ran a segment featuring his family.
"I thought it was really important that we did that story on Friday night on Captain Funkhouser," says Hartman. "Once we understood the family was open to it, I felt really strongly that it be a part of our coverage. It felt like the appropriate way to end what was a very sad and awful week."
The emails to Public Eye about the attack ranged from general condolences to compliments for the coverage to criticisms that CBS News had focused too much on its own. "Our hearts are certainly with Kimberly Dozier, and we would expect you to cover her story more thoroughly than would NBC or ABC, but by making her the lead story and providing lengthy coverage, you are making her into a celebrity," wrote one emailer. "Your job is to report the news, not make the news."
But what, in this case, is the right way to report the news? If CBS focuses too much on its own people, it risks looking self-absorbed and disrespectful of the many soldiers who have died in the war, almost all of whom do not get the kind of airtime given to Brolan, Douglas and Dozier. At the same time, it's understandable that CBS News would give the story significant airtime, since CBS News seems the place most people would think to go if they want comprehensive coverage of the incident.
"You do tend to give more attention to stories that involve people that you know," says Schieffer, who notes that someone like Dozier will also garner more coverage simply because she is a recognizable figure. But that doesn't mean treating that person as more important than any other, he says. "Each American life is precious," he says. "We would never want anyone to think we thought Kimberly's life was more important than a soldier's life, and Kimberly certainly wouldn't want that."
"It's perfectly natural to cover a story like this a little more than for example CBS covered the Woodruff incident," says Friedman. He says CBS did cover the incident, "but we didn't cover it the way ABC did."
The Woodruff incident to which he refers is the Jan. 29 attack that injured then "World News Tonight" co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt. ABC did indeed cover the story aggressively, but, according to media critic Eric Deggans, there was a marked difference in the way that ABC and CBS handled the respective incidents. He notes that CBS was extremely open with information, issuing multiple daily press releases on Dozier's status, making transcripts available in advance, providing significant coverage on CBSNews.com in addition to the regular on-air reports, and offering "tremendous" access to journalists from other news outlets.
"This access and information stands in contrast to ABC, which was much less open about Woodruff's injuries and tightly controlled the information released," writes Deggans. He argues that CBS News "seems to have learned from the unfortunate precedent set by ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff."
Friedman, Hartman and Schieffer all said they did not look to ABC specifically in deciding how to handle last week's incident, though they were familiar with the network's coverage of the Woodruff and Vogt injuries. The decision about how much information to release, says Hartman, was made largely by CBS News President Sean McManus and CBS Spokesperson and Vice President Sandy Genelius.
"Our goal was simple, and that was to keep everyone at CBS informed," says Genelius. "Obviously it was a story that media around the world were interested in, and we just tried to keep it simple. When there was something to report, we issued a statement and an internal [message to CBS staffers]." She says that there "wasn't always something monumental to report" – today, for example, both the statement and the internal noted that Dozier "had her hair washed" – but that the feedback she's gotten suggests that "people really appreciated the regularity of the updates."
No information was released, she adds, without the knowledge of Dozier's family. "You have to balance the legitimate needs of the media to know what's going on with protecting Kimberly and her family's privacy," says Genelius. "We have conversations every day with [Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects] Linda Mason, who is in Germany and is in constant communication with Kimberly's family. We didn't make a move without letting them know."
Schieffer says a "meaningful" story like this helps the people at CBS News better understand what the families of injured and slain soldiers are going through, and that in turn makes them better journalists in the long run. "The more understanding you have," he says, "the better you can do these stories."