After my nephew, Brandon Buttry, was killed in Afghanistan earlier this month, I played a role no one ever anticipates: handling media requests about a loved one’s death.
I’m blogging some advice learned from the experience for any or all of three audiences:
- Relatives of fallen troops who want to help the family deal with the media. (If my advice is helpful, I hope they will find the post through search or by someone sharing with them when they need it).
- Journalists (the usual readers of this blog) who may cover military deaths.
- Military public affairs officers or casualty assistance officers, who assist families of military casualties after the death. (I’m hoping they will find this piece through search or Google alerts or perhaps journalists sharing it with them.)
Some of my advice might fit in other situations where your family is suddenly in the news — death from a disaster or crime, for instance — but I am focusing on military deaths because that was my experience and that is a loss that more than 6,000 U.S. families have experienced during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope you won’t need this advice, but sadly, the carnage in Afghanistan continues.
I will use the term soldier generically here because Brandon was in the Army, but the advice should also fit situations where a sailor, airman or marine dies.
I will direct my advice primarily to family members (journalists and military PAOs or CAOs can adjust most of the advice accordingly, if it’s relevant to them at all).
I’ll start with genuine sympathy. Brandon’s death and the events that followed were as difficult as anything I’ve ever endured, and of course, my grief wasn’t nearly as intense as what his parents and siblings experienced. If you’re reading this for advice on dealing with your own family’s loss, I am deeply sorry. Please feel welcome to email me — stephen (dot) buttry (at) gmail (dot) com — and we can connect by phone or Skype to discuss the challenges you face.
Now for my advice:
Designate a relative to deal with the media
Soon after my brother Don told me about Brandon’s death, I realized that the news media would be calling eventually. At the very latest, they would call when the Defense Department announced the death (that happened the day after the Army informed Don and Pam of their son’s death). But the news probably would have spread quickly that day in their small hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa, and once it was reported on the local media there, regional media and the Associated Press would have started inquiring.
I have written about soldiers killed in war and other sudden newsworthy deaths and I know that, however sensitive journalists try to be, we are an intrusion. But many families also want to tell the story of the person they have lost. I realized right away that I could help my family by playing this role. I was eager to help in some way, and feeling largely helpless, so I volunteered. However little or much you want to cooperate with the media, it helps to have a point person for the media to deal with.
You might not have my experience in the media, but you probably want to help in some way. Obviously, if your family includes a journalist, public-relations professional or a newsmaker who has dealt with the media (coach, public official, etc.), that would help, but it’s not necessary. If you are comfortable talking with strangers and if you can search the Internet effectively, you probably can work effectively in this role. Teachers, clergy, lawyers and salespeople probably have professional experience and inclinations that would be helpful in this role, and many others may have helpful experience or just have the right personality for it.
The task of dealing with journalists may feel intimidating. But every journalist I dealt with was sensitive and caring, expressing genuine sympathy for the family’s loss. I only recall one insensitive remark (a journalist referred to this as a “great story”), and that was just a slip from someone who otherwise was very thoughtful.
The person carrying out this role needs some flexibility from his or her employer and/or family. It’s time-consuming work. News coverage of Brandon’s death unfolded over most of two weeks — his family learned of his death on Monday, Nov. 5, the same day he died, and his funeral wasn’t until Thursday, Nov. 15. Once I volunteered to help, I spent some time every day dealing with the media, either fielding their requests, doing interviews or passing along updates. While I did some work during that time, my bosses were greatly understanding of the situation and my need to help my family.
I don’t think there’s a particular relationship with the soldier that is ideal for being the person to deal with the media. In most families, the parents are going to be too overwhelmed with emotion and funeral preparations and military paperwork and calls and visits from friends and other grieving relatives. The point of having a family member deal with the media is to shield the parents from dealing with the media beyond their ability or interest. The parents may be willing to do an interview — and may want to talk with the media about their fallen son or daughter — but someone else should field the inquiries and set up the interviews.
Brandon was not married, but a spouse and children would be similarly overwhelmed with grief, condolences and arrangements. (If I mention parents in future references here, those comments probably apply to the spouse and/or children as well.)
Some families may have an adult sibling who is emotionally able to handle the media duties, but they might be helping parents deal with their grief or dealing with young children of their own, who are either grief-stricken themselves or don’t understand what’s going on. Maybe an in-law or cousin would be a good spokesperson. As an uncle, I think I was well-positioned to work with the media — close enough to answer most questions about Brandon knowledgeably and add some personal anecdotes but not as emotionally exhausted as the parents and siblings. My sons were grown and my wife was supportive of my role, so I could give it full attention when needed.
In some cases, a close family friend might be able to play this role.
Initiate contact with the media
Some people’s instincts or inclination might be to wait until the media start calling (perhaps in the vain hope that they won’t). If you do that, reporters’ first calls will be to the parents and/or spouse, if they can find a phone number (Don has a publicly listed land line and a distinctive last name that would be easy to find). Even if you have only a cell number or an unlisted number, you should expect some media calls. Journalists are resourceful and they will be calling people who have the family’s phone number. Or they will find family members on Facebook or will find an email address. Or they will come knocking at your door.
I decided to announce Brandon’s death to the media, telling them from the first that I would be handling media inquiries and giving them my phone number and email address. The morning that we learned of Brandon’s death, after Don accepted my offer to deal with the media, I emailed an announcement with some basic information to KMA Radio and the Valley News in Shenandoah, as well as to the Omaha World-Herald, which covers and delivers in southwest Iowa, and the Des Moines Register, which no longer delivers daily in Shenandoah but still covers some statewide news, and Omaha and Des Moines TV stations. I neglected to include the Associated Press in my initial announcements, but you should find out which AP bureau covers your area and contact it. (An AP reporter contacted me after reading a story on another news site.) I also didn’t think to contact media in the community where Brandon was deployed from, but the Tacoma News Tribune outside Fort Lewis, Wash., covered Brandon’s death. I included the AP and News Tribune in subsequent updates about Brandon.
You also should think of any local news blogs or Patch sites that cover the soldier’s community and message them. I did not know of any such blogs or sites for Shenandoah, though I did communicate later with a newsletter that publishes Shenandoah news. You also might contact the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times or Marine Corps Times. I didn’t contact a military newspaper, but the Army Times published AP’s story on Brandon’s death.
The Des Moines TV stations didn’t provide any coverage that I know of (at least they never contacted me or showed up in my Google alerts), but the other media that I contacted covered Brandon’s death, the return of his body and/or the funeral. And they all contacted me directly, rather than bothering the immediate family.
I did not notify the national media. One television network did contact the family directly, and they referred the producer to me. That network has not covered the story.
Gather the facts
In your announcement to the media, and in subsequent interviews, try to have as many answers as you can to the basic questions of journalism:
Who? Be sure that you have the correct spellings of the soldier’s name, the parents’ and spouse’s names and names and ages of children and siblings.
What? Your biggest what initially will be the soldier’s death, but you will have three other newsworthy events to inform the media about: the body’s return to Dover Air Force Base, Del., the body’s return to the hometown and the funeral itself.
When? I was shocked enough with the news of Brandon’s death that I didn’t initially get the date of death from Don and didn’t include it in my announcement to the media. Brandon died Monday, Nov. 5, the same day we were informed. You also want to get the media the dates and times of the return ceremonies and the funeral. It took a few days before we knew when the body would return to Shenandoah, so some of my daily updates to the media merely informed them that we had no news (but it’s easier to handle that fact in one email update than by answering a half-dozen calls or emails).
Where? Locations are important to the story, which unfolds in many places. Don’s family didn’t know initially where he was stationed in Afghanistan (he was in Kandahar, the southern Pashtun province where the Taliban originated and where fighting has been most intense), but the Army announced that fact. We initially thought the body would be returned to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, but it was flown to Shenandoah Regional Airport. And, of course, the locations of visitation, funeral and burial are all newsworthy and may not be known immediately. (Don and Pam decided not to ask for Brandon to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.)
Why and how? Journalists want to know the circumstances of a soldier’s death. We didn’t know the circumstances of Brandon’s death, except that he was on duty in a guard tower. The Army is investigating and we’ll know what happened when we get the report. Another why that journalists want to know about is the soldier’s motivation for joining the service. Don told me (and I told reporters) that Brandon had always wanted to be a soldier, since he was a little boy.
Be sure to get your facts correct. Even a seemingly small error in fact in a news report might draw an emotional reaction from someone in the family. Don’t presume you know everything you think you know. I was mistaken about a detail of Brandon’s adoption and quickly corrected myself to reporters when I learned of my error (fortunately no one had reported that detail yet).
What’s unusual or unique about this soldier?
Journalists are always looking for what distinguishes one story from another. Sadly, we’ve had lots of stories about soldiers killed in wars. Consider what makes this soldier different. Journalists are likely to focus on that.
The unique circumstance for Brandon and the focus of much media coverage was that he came from a family of 14 children, 11 of them adopted. Brandon was the second-oldest of the adopted children, one of three 19-year-old siblings. Many of the news accounts focused on, or at least noted, the large family and the commitment to adoption. The Omaha World-Herald’s headline referred to Brandon’s “amazing family.”
Consider what about your situation will make your soldier’s story stand out to the journalists: Did a parent or sibling serve in the military? Did a recent letter, email or Facebook message discuss the danger of battle (or reassure loved ones about the soldier’s safety)? Was the soldier riveted as a child by news accounts of 9/11 (Brandon was 8 at the time)?
Even if the soldier’s story isn’t particularly unique or unusual, details will help make him or her feel more personal to the strangers reading the story (or people in the community who just sort of knew the soldier). I noted in interviews that Brandon was a Philadelphia Eagles fan in a family with strong Minnesota Vikings loyalties. I told reporters that Brandon’s funeral was in the church where his grandfather (my father) was pastor from 1970 to 1976. Remember (or ask other family members) some details that will help journalists make their stories unique to your fallen soldier.
If you know a local angle that would appeal to a particular news organization, be sure to alert them. When Nancy Newhoff, editor of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, emailed me with a question about the AP story, I noted to her that his sister was Missy Buttry Rock, who had been a national champion in track and cross country for Wartburg College, just north of Waterloo and Cedar Falls. That local angle merited mention in the Courier’s story (and probably got a little better play for the coverage).
Decide how open you want to be
As a journalist, my inclination was to grant interviews with the news media and to grant access to events. But that wasn’t my call. The closest family members need to decide what they can handle and whether they want do do interviews. The person handling the media carries out the parents or spouse’s wishes.
I outlined options to Don and Pam and helped carry out their wishes. They have not felt ready to do interviews yet, so I have been the primary spokesperson to the media. I also passed along the names of some family friends (I recommend giving the friends a heads-up, which I got busy and did not do, but they helped the media anyway).
The regional media who were interested in Brandon’s death did not ask about covering the ceremony when Brandon’s body was flown to Dover on Nov. 7. But I emailed the media that evening with an account of the ceremony. KMA asked for an interview the next morning and I recounted the ceremony.
For the return of the body to Shenandoah, Don and Pam decided they wanted the ceremony to be private, so I informed the media about that decision. After the ceremony, I emailed the media to inform them that the body had returned to Shenandoah.
We asked for the visitation to be private. For the funeral, Don didn’t want cameras inside the church distracting mourners. I told the media of that decision, but invited reporters with notebooks to sit in the church and said the media would be welcome to shoot photos and videos outside the church and at a respectful distance at the cemetery. The external shots made better visuals anyway, as the route from the church to the cemetery was lined with flags and with people saluting and holding signs of support.
I should note that we would have had no authority to block external photos and videos anyway. You can control what people do inside the church or funeral home and who attends, but not outside.
In my initial email to the news media, I attached the photo of Brandon that you see at the right, shot when his mother and sister went to Fort Benning for his graduation from boot camp. Many in the news media used it.
Television wanted more, especially since they didn’t have on-camera interviews with family members (I was at my Virginia home for the first wave of coverage). So I sent more photos to the TV stations that asked for them. They helped round out the video report below.
In retrospect, I would advise sending all media a half-dozen or more photos of your loved one — two or three military shots, a family photo or two and some photos of him or her as a child and teen-ager. Digital media outlets are interested in slide shows and photo galleries, and I should have been savvy enough to think of sending out more photos.
I also sent some photos of the return ceremony at the airport (Don said he wanted me to shoot some photos there), and some of the media used them.
Don’t give attention-seekers what they want
I’m going to practice some bad journalism here, not answering the who of this particular section. An attention-seeking cult has decided it can get media coverage by carrying disgusting signs and chanting hateful slogans outside the funerals of American soldiers. I was sickened at the thought of them appearing at Brandon’s funeral and briefly considered elaborate schemes for not announcing the date, time or place of the funeral (but somehow getting the word to the right people). But we announced the funeral date and time.
The cult announced on its website (I won’t link to it) plans to demonstrate outside Brandon’s funeral and Shenandoah’s mayor said they would get a permit, if they applied, to demonstrate in a park a few blocks from the church.
Before Brandon’s death, I had not known about the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that shows support for fallen warriors. They are truly an uplifting group, mostly veterans and mostly riding motorcycles, and their Harleys will drown out the hate cult’s chants if it shows up. Be sure to contact your state captain with details of your loved one’s return and funeral. (I didn’t contact them about Brandon’s funeral, but my cousin, Frank Yunk-Arnold, a retired Air Force First Sergeant, did.) The American Legion Riders also showed their support.
Someone in Shenandoah also organized an amazing show of support from the community. That effort included signs on white sheets, expressing support and sympathy for Brandon’s family. If the cult appeared, those sheets would be used to shield the family from the hateful signs.
The cult didn’t appear. I recommend that you inform the Patriot Guard Riders of your fallen warrior’s funeral and don’t worry about the attention-seekers (and don’t pay them any attention if they show up). When the possibility came up in an interview, I downplayed it, saying that Brandon was defending our freedoms and that included the First Amendment freedoms the cult would be exercising. I said the love shown by the community would overwhelm the hate from a few cultists.
The show of support for Brandon’s family was tremendous, and any other demonstration would barely have been noticed.
Tell the story yourself
I am a blogger, so it was natural for me to tell the story. Mimi and I share a travel blog, so I first posted there, about a trip we made in 2006 to a family reunion, when Brandon and his cousin, Patrick Devlin, were 13. Neither boy made it to his 20th birthday, so I shared some photos and memories of two special nephews we lost too soon.
I also had been wondering how to blog about my Facebook chats with Brandon, in which I frequently urged him to “stay safe.” After the intensely emotional ceremony at Dover, which other family members could not attend, I wove the two topics into one post.
After the funeral, I didn’t have much more to say, but had lots of photos from an emotional week in Shenandoah, so I blogged again, sharing the photos.
If you don’t have a blog, you can set one up quickly on WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr. Share your posts on Facebook and Twitter, and people will find them. If you’re a writer, writing will help you process your grief. One of the points of dealing with the media is to help tell the story of the soldier you’ve lost. You can do that yourself, too.
Collect the media coverage
Some members of your fallen warrior’s family won’t be able to read the stories and watch the videos until later, after some healing, but at some point they will want to reach and watch the media coverage. I asked the print reporters who covered Brandon’s story to send copies to his parents and they were happy to do so.
I set up Google alerts for Brandon’s name, set to email me immediately when Google found references to his name. If you have a more common name (Buttry is perfect for Google alerts), you might need to include other terms in the search, such as Afghanistan, the soldier’s rank or the hometown. Keep in mind that Google will alert you when its spiders crawl new content with the name in it. You will get many alerts almost immediately, but some may take several days (I’m still getting some more than a week old).
I also recommend asking journalists to send you a link when their stories are posted (some will remember to do so).
I used Storify to compile the media coverage (and some highlights of the social media coverage) for the family. If you’re not familiar with Storify, it’s easy to open an account at Storify.com. You use the module on the right side of the screen to search social media or the web for stories, videos, etc. Then you can drag them into the story module on the left. You can write some text in between each embed in your story module. If you have any trouble, contact me and I’ll help you get started. It’s a handy way to pull all the coverage together for family members.
Be available for interviews
From the media standpoint and from the standpoint of the family wanting to tell the story of the fallen soldier, the ideal situation is for the parents and/or spouse to be able and willing to sit for an interview. But that may not be realistic in the immediate aftermath of the soldier’s death. The parents may not be emotionally ready for such an interview.
If someone closer to the soldier is willing to do an interview, you can set it up. Brandon’s brothers and sisters were not ready for interviews, so I became the family’s spokesman, accepting every request for interviews:
- The day of Brandon’s death, I did at least six interviews by telephone from my home in Virginia.
- The morning after the ceremony at Dover, I did an interview by phone from my car, parked at a gas station in Maryland, with Chuck Morris of KMA Radio in Shenandoah.
- The day before the funeral, I went to KMA’s studio in Shenandoah for an interview with Chuck.
- The morning of the funeral, I met Omaha World-Herald reporter Matthew Hansen at our hotel in Shenandoah for an interview. I also was going to meet an Omaha TV crew for an interview that morning, but the timing didn’t work out.
- I told reporters I would be available after the burial. At the cemetery afterward, I saw a group of journalists, mostly TV reporters and videographers, interviewing the general who had come to the funeral. I stood nearby and they turned to me when they were done with the general. Journalists don’t like the group interview as much as one-on-one interviews, but it’s more efficient for the family and at least four different news organizations used clips from that interview. When cars were starting to leave the cemetery, I stopped the interview, saying I could talk to some of them at the church, where family and friends were gathering for a lunch, if they needed more. None came by the church for further interviews.
- Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson interviewed me outside the church after the lunch.
While someone from the immediate family could have given a more detailed account of Brandon’s life, I was able to cover some basics in those early interviews — about the family’s strong faith and interest in sports, the family’s strong commitment to adoption, Brandon’s interest in the Army. I also added some personal perspective, such as my occasional Facebook chats with Brandon or that he was a Philadelphia Eagles fan in a family of Minnesota Vikings fans.
In later interviews, I stressed the family’s appreciation for the outpouring of support from the community, the military and the Patriot Guard Riders.
Online, in print and on TV, stories work better and get better play if reporters have someone to interview. If other members of the family are not able to provide the family perspective that journalists want, step up and give the reporters a family voice for their stories and the coverage of your fallen soldier will receive better play.
Use social media effectively
If you’re interested in helping the family deal with the media, social media may be as important as the professional news media. If the professional media don’t find your family’s loss as newsworthy as they found Brandon’s, dealing with social media might be the biggest way you can help.
Don and Pam aren’t among the billion-plus people using Facebook, but Brandon was a regular user. Even if the parents were avid Facebook users, they probably would not have had the time or emotional energy to deal with the outpouring of sympathy and support on Facebook.
As much as I use Twitter and encourage its use by journalists, Facebook dominates social media use in a time of grief, or at least it did in this case. Brandon did not use Twitter (it would be a bigger part of the public grief for an active user such as me). His siblings and cousins and fellow soldiers were much more active on Facebook than Twitter. Beyond the personal condolences and messages on both of those social platforms, social media were important ways of keeping the extended family and friends updated on plans.
I posted links to the various news stories on both Twitter and Facebook and each post was liked, shared and commented on by friends and family as well as people who had never met Brandon. I also found a couple YouTube tributes to Brandon. And I compiled photos of Brandon and the events relating to his death on a Pinboard.
This past weekend, nearly three weeks after Brandon’s death, we had another explosion of social media interest. This happened almost entirely on Facebook and Twitter, with the only notice from the professional media coming from KMA Radio in Shenandoah (I emailed all the media I had been dealing with a heads-up).
Last Friday was the day that Brandon had been scheduled to return to Fort Lewis with his unit. He had told his parents (who were planning to go out there) that he wanted to celebrate with a cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke. Don and Pam shared that with some friends and family, asking us to have a cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke in Brandon’s honor. One of their daughters, Missy Rock, and I shared that suggestion on Facebook and it kind of went viral (I later shared it on Twitter). More than 100 people that we know of, many of whom never met Brandon, ate cheeseburgers for him over the past weekend, many posting photos on Facebook or Twitter.
Again, I used Storify to compile the cheeseburger salutes.
— Don Whiteside™ (@donw) November 24, 2012
— Kurt Schwarz (@RealLifeHusband) November 24, 2012
Work with the military
The family doesn’t have to reach out to the media as I did. Two types of military officials will help the family in different ways following the death of a soldier — casualty assistance officers and public affairs officers (CAO and PAO in Army acronyms). For an excellent look at the work of the CAO, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning Final Salute project by Jim Sheeler and Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News.
Sergeant 1st Class Nick Esser, a member of the Iowa National Guard, provided immeasurable help for Brandon’s family after his death and I’m sure some of that help would have extended to dealing with the media if I hadn’t played that role. At the very least, the CAO will put you in touch with the PAO, whose job is dealing with the media.
I had brief dealings with PAOs from Brandon’s infantry division at Fort Lewis and the Iowa National Guard, both of whom issued press releases. I didn’t ask much help from the PAOs, but I am sure they would provide more help to a family without professional media experience.
Keep in mind, though, that journalists will want some family perspective in their stories, so contact with a PAO will not keep reporters from contacting the family.
Be sure to understand and respect the military’s security concerns about some information. Brandon was killed 10 days before his unit was to leave Afghanistan (they would have left on the day of the funeral). The week before his death, he told his parents that he would be back in Fort Lewis the day after Thanksgiving. Those were details journalists would have featured in their stories. But the military wants to avoid public statements about upcoming troop movements, so they asked Don to keep that fact private, and we honored that request.
A couple of story ideas
This section is primarily for journalists, not for family members dealing with the media. But family members might call them to journalists’ attention. Beyond the stories about the fallen soldier and the funeral, journalists should consider two potential stories that were a big part of the events surrounding Brandon’s funeral and might be good stories if you’re covering other soldiers’ deaths:
The Patriot Guard Riders brought dozens of people to town, most of them veterans riding motorcycles and carrying American flags. I didn’t ask where they came from, but patches on their jackets indicated they were coming from across Iowa and Nebraska. I think the PGR would make a great sidebar if they come to your town. Or they might make a good main story for one day of what can be a multi-day story. I would guess two or three dozen were in Shenandoah by Tuesday, Nov. 13, for the return of Brandon’s body. Many more showed up Wednesday for the visitation, lining the sidewalks outside the church with their flags. I was told they expected 150 for the Thursday funeral, and that looked about right for me. They would have made a good story any one of those days. While I didn’t see a story specifically about the PGR, they figured prominently in the funeral stories and photos.
Larry Eckhardt, “The Flagman,” brought hundreds of flags (I heard the total was over 2,000 and that didn’t seem like an exaggeration) to Shenandoah for the funeral. With the help of community volunteers, he lined the route from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery with flags, then lined most of the lanes of the cemetery with flags (the shot in my blog header is just a sliver of the flags at the cemetery). KMA did a feature on him and CBS has done a feature as well. He’d be a good story if he comes to your community.
Verify all facts
Journalists pride ourselves on our accuracy, but I have to say that several media reports about Brandon had factual errors. I was exhausted (and often checking media reports late at night), so I didn’t bother to alert any of the journalists to their errors and ask for corrections. You could say they were minor errors if you think inaccuracy can ever be described as minor, but they were wrong and those errors diminished respect for those journalists, their organizations or the media in general among relatives or friends who knew the journalists were mistaken.
So here’s my advice to journalists (in all situations, not just military deaths): Doublecheck all your facts and make sure you get them right. Use a checklist to improve your accuracy. People will remember the facts you screwed up.
One reporter emailed me a draft of a story before publishing it, just so I could check the facts. I emailed back a couple of factual corrections and caught a typo that editors probably would have caught. Letting sources review stories before publication is a controversial practice among some journalists, who fear that sources who see stories in advance of publication will try to influence how the story is told (so I won’t name the journalist). But the fact is that this journalist’s story was accurate and several other stories about Brandon contained errors. (And I made no suggestions beyond the corrections.)
A PAO also sent me a press release for my review, and I corrected some spellings of family members’ names.
If you’re the family member who’s dealing with media, you should offer to fact-check drafts before publication. If you’re a PAO or journalist, you should consider emailing drafts of a story or calling the family contact to fact-check by phone.