St. Petersburg Times
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TV reports blindside soldiers' families

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2003

Every military family dreads that knock on the door, portending the awful news that a loved one has been killed in battle.

But the story of the Iraqi war is unfolding with such speed that families may learn of tragedy from live broadcasts or Internet images, short-circuiting the military practice of a personal visit and, at least, a shoulder to cry on.

"The insertion of the media almost guarantees that images of people being hurt or killed will be aired at some point," said Michael Smith, a communications professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

It's a prospect that worries not just media professionals but families of soldiers, sailors and airmen overseas.

Consider the case of Anecita Hudson of Alamogordo, Texas, who learned from TV that her son had been taken prisoner by Iraqi soldiers. On Sunday, she was watching Philippine TV, to which she subscribes, when the station broadcast images of captured soldiers, images that many U.S. stations did not air.

"I think it would be devastating," said Cathryn Young, a family support group coleader for the Army's 320th MP Company in St. Petersburg, whose husband is an Army first sergeant.

Such discoveries are bound to be devastating, but the blow can be softened with notification by authorities, said Dr. Terri Weaver, assistant professor of clinical psychology at St. Louis University.

Authorities can provide support and answer questions about what happened, Weaver said.

"If someone just sees an image on television, they don't have the opportunity to ask the questions," she said.

"What they are hearing is very shocking and very distressing, so what you want to do is build a context for hearing that news that is supportive and that is sensitive, where the person really has to hear the information and be able to process it," she said. "When you have all that shock with the way they are told, they can't even get to dealing with the information."

The ordeal can be overwhelming, she said.

"People traumatized by the news they hear will often describe how they heard about it as a big part of the trauma," she added.

The children of soldiers could be particularly susceptible to images of their parents in peril, said Kathleen Crowley-Long, a professor of psychology at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. "Children are going to experience that with a lot of anxiety and a lot of trauma."

Still, soldiers' family members probably have an appetite for information that may keep them glued to the television, said Charles R. Figley, a professor in the school of social work at Florida State University.

"The good news is they don't have the vacuum of information," said Figley, a Vietnam combat veteran who specializes in traumatic stress reactions.

The bad news is that all this information can be traumatic itself.

Maryann Ritchie, 56, of Port Richey takes medication for panic disorders and isn't supposed to get worked up about anything. But her son is in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and she says she can't take her eyes off her television.

"I'm a nervous wreck," she said. "I'm flipping out."

If she ever learned bad news about him through television, "I'd drop dead," she said. "I would die."

Carrie Moss, 25, of Pinellas Park said she wouldn't want to get bad news from television.

"I'd want a real person to tell me," said Moss, whose husband, Brennan, is a staff sergeant with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Bud and Mary McCaffery of Pinellas County were not upset to learn about their son from TV reports. He appeared behind a correspondent, which provided the welcome news that he was fine.

"It was so great," Mary McCaffery said.

Despite their sometimes vulture-like reputation, mainstream media often adhere to certain rules of sensitivity: The grisliest images don't make the cut, and names of the dead are usually withheld until family members have been notified.

Media outlets don't have to make a simple decision of using an image or not. They can land somewhere in the middle, perhaps by delaying a broadcast until family members are notified, said Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

In the case of a sergeant arrested over the weekend, some outlets chose to blur his face on video or photos. In photographs published on front pages of many newspapers (including the Times), military personnel can be seen carrying the wounded, though injured soldiers' faces are obscured.

"That's what ethical decisionmaking is all about," Steele said. "It's dealing with multiple values, presenting the truth as best as possible and being sensitive."

-- Times staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report.

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