If it had been a personal diary, there might be a more pressing question whether any news organization should glean reports from, much less read, something so intimate.
But what CNN is calling a “journal” appears to be the thoughts of Ambassador Stevens set to paper to assist him with his official reports. If that is the case, CNN broke no ethical standard that I can see in using the information contained in the writings.
Three days after he was killed, CNN found a journal belonging to late U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The journal was found on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded.
CNN notified Stevens’ family about the journal within hours after it was discovered and at the family’s request provided it to them via a third party.
The journal consists of just seven pages of handwriting in a hard-bound book.
For CNN, the ambassador’s writings served as tips about the situation in Libya, and in Benghazi in particular. CNN took the newsworthy tips and corroborated them with other sources.
A source familiar with Stevens’ thinking told CNN earlier this week that, in the months leading up to his death, the late ambassador worried about what he called the security threats in Benghazi and a rise in Islamic extremism.
CNN appeared to approach information gathered from the journal in a responsible manner while being cognizant of the personal nature of the ambassador’s writings by giving it to the family of the dead diplomat. I suppose an argument can be made that the writing was more personal than official, but from what little CNN has told us, it would appear that the ambassador’s personal thoughts were used in the preparation of official reports to the State Department. Not reporting on the entire contents of the journal might be considered problematic but given the importance and seriousness of the story being reported, CNN acted as responsibly and ethically as the situation dictated.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the family is upset with CNN’s use of the journal and the State Department is angry as well:
By finding and using Mr. Stevens’s personal handwritten thoughts, CNN provoked an unusually sharp condemnation from top officials at the State Department, who called the network’s conduct “disgusting.”
“Not a proud moment in CNN’s history,” said Philippe Reines, senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A CNN representative said in a statement issued late Saturday in response to the criticism that the news organization did not initially report on the existence of a journal “out of respect for the family, but we felt there were issues raised in the journal which required full reporting.”
The episode marks a side drama in the aftermath of the consulate siege and highlights questions news organizations can encounter when they come across evidence also being sought by law enforcement or other government officials. Personal material important to surviving relatives represents an even more delicate dilemma.
CNN said on its website that it notified the Stevens family “within hours” that it had the journal. The Stevens family then reached out to the State Department, which arranged a telephone conference call between members of the family and CNN. In that call, the family asked the news organization to return the journal and to not publish or broadcast any of its contents, according to a Stevens family member and State Department officials.
Family members and State Department officials said CNN agreed during the Sept. 14 conference call to hold off on using the diary until the family had a chance to review its contents.
One can sympathize with the family on this issue, but the murder of an American ambassador and publishing his thoughts leading up to his death is a story with worldwide significance. CNN felt it had an obligation to selectively air those thoughts, only after confirming them with other sources, and keeping secret any personal and intimate details contained in the journal.
Would another news outlet have handled the situation any differently? Few would have, which makes CNN’s actions defensible.