International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Media Matters: Getting It Right Is Crucial When Dealing with Grief

Posted 1 March 2008 in StressPoints by ISTSS

Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR, owns Steppingstone LLC , a design and public relations firm and is a public affairs officer for TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (www.taps.org), a nonprofit organization that provides a support network for the surviving military families of those who have died in service to America. She is a survivor herself. Her brother Christopher Neiberger, 22, was killed in Iraq in August of last year.

In this interview with Olga Kravtsova, a psychologist from Russia who is currently a Fulbright Scholar working with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in Seattle, Neiberger-Miller shares her experience and recommendations for journalists who work with survivors. 

Kravtsova: You provide comprehensive advice for the grieving families as a PR professional, and you also know this trauma from inside. Does your work with TAPS help you deal with your own emotional experience? 

Neiberger-Miller:
Yes, I think it helps. First I was a little hesitant to get heavily involved in TAPS, and in particular, in a media role, because the loss is so recent. But TAPS gives me a way to connect with my own personal experience with loss. It also helps me to work with the families, because I know their issues and their pain, I've been through that. 

Kravtsova: You help grieving families to deal with media. What would be your recommendations for journalists who work with survivors? 

Neiberger-Miller:
I would say – start soft and don't overly dwell on the death, in particular with children. So often reporters start with questions about the death. It can be shocking. It's better to start by asking something like – tell me about your husband, or your family. I know that a lot of journalists don't like to throw soft balls – but in this case, with a grieving family, that would build rapport, show respect, and allow the family to talk about their loved ones. 

Dying in war is different. A lot of our families are dealing with the fact that they lost their loved ones to IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which can mean they aren't able to view their loved one, or do some of the things that would normally occur. I know that sometimes journalists need to ask about these types of things, but there is no nice way to handle that, and there is no polite way to discuss it. They can get this kind of information from the funeral home, or a minister, or somebody else rather than asking the family. 

I think journalists have to be really cautious when they approach politics with the survivors. There is a fear with a lot of our families that the death of their loved one could be politicized. Loss is loss, and politics is politics. 

It's really important for the journalists to respect the family's wishes. For example, I called the TV station and asked them to correct how they pronounced our name. And I spelled out that there should be no photographs of our house or at our house. Media should respect the wishes of parents about their children, especially young children. Reporters always want to talk to little kids, but the mom may be thinking about how this interview is traumatizing her child. And the parents want to be there when their child is interviewed by a reporter. 

I think we would really like reporters to approach us and ask. Don't be afraid! We had a situation at the Arlington Cemetery with a widow and her two small kids. A photographer hid in the tree line, took photos with his telephoto lens, then approached one of the kids for the names. He may have thought he was being sensitive by being far back in the tree line and not in their faces, but he was actually being very invasive. Many of the families are open to talking to journalists and to photographs, because they want their loved ones remembered, and their sacrifice honored, but families need to be treated with sensitivity. 

One thing reporters need to understand about grief is that the family that is okay today, and able to function and talk, may not be okay tomorrow. I'm sure it's very frustrating to journalists. But that's something that reporters have to realize about grief. 

A military death is a public death. All of these families used to live pretty anonymously, and all of a sudden their private pain is in the center of media attention and in the public eye. It can be overwhelming for them. And they don't always have a media professional advising them or helping them set the limits they might need for their family's emotional safety. 

Kravtsova: Do you think when a journalist says that he or she had some similar experience it helps or not? 

Neiberger-Miller:
Unless their experience is exactly "I lost a parent or a loved one in a war, who served the military" – it doesn't relate. Everybody says: "I know how you feel" or "My great aunt died five years ago, I know how it feels". No you don't know how we feel. And saying you do, just makes the person you are interviewing feel more isolated and like you won't understand their perspective. 

Kravtsova: Many people just don't know how to approach this. 

Neiberger-Miller:
They don't know what to say. You could make a long list of all the stupid things people say to people who are grieving – I know I said many of them before my brother died. They are supposed to make people feel better but sometimes it makes them feel worse. Just saying you are sorry and trying to listen to the person is enough. 

Journalists should also be sensitive to anniversaries. The birthdays, the day of the death, the anniversary of the burial, and the holidays – are all very sensitive times. For some families the anniversary of the death of the loved one might mean that they go to the cemetery for the entire day, just to be there. Some of them will do a ceremony like a dove release or something else, but they may or may not want media there. And journalists have to respect the family's wishes and realize that when you are invited, the family is allowing itself to be vulnerable in front of you. 

Sometimes journalists have a very predefined notion of what they're willing to accept as a grieving family. They want a widow and young children who are old enough to talk, but young enough to be cute. They want for them to be photogenic and crying a little bit. Sometimes the reporters have such a rigid definition of what they want that the situation they are looking for can't be found. 

Kravtsova: Sometimes such predefined and rigid notions prevent journalists from being good listeners. And when dealing with survivors it's really important to listen carefully. 

Neiberger-Miller:
It's helpful if journalists listen more to the families and not try to pigeon-hole our families into one set script. Otherwise it's disheartening for a family, because they are allowing themselves to be vulnerable for an interview, they don't have to do this. 

Kravtsova: Why do you think other people, the public, who read newspapers and listen to radio programs, need to know about others' traumas? 

Neiberger-Miller: In the case of military deaths – these are people who are being sent off on behalf of all of us. And they've made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives for our country. It's very easy for us to forget that there is a war going on. So I think that seeing the coverage reminds people of that. TAPS estimates that for every death in the military there are 10 family members or significant friendships that are affected. So just for the war on terror with about 4,000 deaths, it means that there are 40,000 people who are walking around our country and grieving. It can happen to somebody you know. 

I think media play an important role in educating the public about how they can help families of the fallen. A lot of people legitimately want to help, but they have no idea what to do. Sometimes they come up with their own ideas, which are not always helpful. We need to channel all of that energy in a good way, and the media can definitely assist with that. 

We are willing to work with media, and we need journalists to help us tell our stories. But there is a need for human decency. I would encourage journalists to consider treating our families the way that they would like for their own to be treated – what if this happened to your family?
Talking to survivors who are dealing with traumatic grief is not a normal story, and not just one of many stories. It's a different thing entirely. Journalists have to get everything right, every time, when they are dealing with a grieving family.