Is it ever justifiable for a news organization to use information from a personal journal to inform a story? Or could it be said that it’s actually the obligation of the reporter to whatever information they can find, no matter the source?
The U.S. Department of State is blasting CNN for using the diary of American ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11. CNN, which said that it found the journal three days after the attack, has taken heat from State Department spokesman Philip Reines, who claimed that CNN broke a pledge to the ambassador’s family by reporting on the diary. In a phone call with the Stevens family, CNN “agreed to abide by the clear wishes of the Stevens family, and pledged not to use the diary or even allude to its existence until hearing back from the family.” But four days later, according to Reines, they “went ahead and used it.”
Reines called the use of Stevens’ notebook “indefensible,” asking, “Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom for others to read, and then call the family?”
CNN says that it notified Stevens’ family about the journal “within hours,” and then reported on the “noteworthy tips” within, claiming that it had corroborated the tips with other sources. Citing a source close to Stevens, CNN reported that the ambassador had been concerned about security threats in Benghazi and a “rise in Islamic extremism.”
As noted by NPR, Anderson Cooper first mentioned the diary on-air following previous CNN reports that Stevens harbored fears that he was on an al-Qaeda hit list. Cooper said that some of the information in the reports had been based on Stevens’ personal journal. CNN defended its use of the journal, saying that it had not initially reported on it out of respect for the family, but felt that there were “issues raised in the journal which required full reporting.”
In the release from the State Department, Reines said, “Given the truth of how this was handled, CNN patting themselves on the back is disgusting.” On the other hand, says Kathleen McKinley of the Houston Chronicle, CNN’s obligation was to report the news. “You remember hard hitting journalism, right? Since when did journalism become polite?” Mckinley asked.
Was CNN’s use of the journal a breach of ethics or just thorough reporting? Weigh in here.