Rules mulled for media at Arlington – Army wants standards for coverage

By Lisa Burgess, Stars and Stripes
Friday, May 2, 2008

ARLINGTON, Virginia — The Army plans to develop new ground rules for press coverage of military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery after reporters complained that they are stationed so far from the grave site that they can neither see nor hear the ceremony.

The Army met with Pentagon press corps members Wednesday to discuss the issue, which came to a head after an article by Dana Milbank appeared last week in The Washington Post.

Titled “What the family would let you see, the Pentagon obstructs,” Milbank’s piece criticized the way the military handled press coverage of the April 22 funeral of Lt. Col. Billy Hall.

Even though Hall’s family had given permission for the media to attend the funeral — the only way media is allowed to cover the otherwise private events — the reporters were cordoned off in a group too far to hear or see the service.

That is Arlington’s policy, Thurman Higginbotham, Arlington Cemetery’s deputy director, said during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The media will always be separated from the funeral,” Higginbotham said. “‘Invited’ doesn’t mean you attend the funeral. It means you can cover it from a distance that is a respectable distance, and not be obtrusive to the mourners.”

But Al Pessin, Pentagon correspondent for Voice of America, said that the media’s definition of covering an event is not the same as “seeing it at a distance.”

“We understand we’re not invited to the funeral as guests,” Pessin said. “But in order to do our job, we need … to hear what’s said, and to see it, as well as you can see it without being obtrusive.”

Navy Cmdr. Daniel Hernandez, a spokesman for the Joint Staff who joined the meeting, agreed with Pessin.

“‘Coverage’ would indicate that they need to be able to document the event,” Hernandez told Arlington and Army leaders at the meeting.

Stephanie Hoehne, the Army’s principal deputy chief of public affairs, said the Army could help Arlington officials draft a set of standard media coverage “ground rules” for press conduct at funerals.

The military also uses ground rules for media covering military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rules are voluntary, but media who don’t agree to sign and comply are not allowed to cover the event at hand.

Hoehne proposed forming a committee to draft the rules which would include members of the media, as well as Army and Arlington officials.

The media representatives agreed to provide one representative each from television, radio, and print outlets, each of which has distinctly different technical requirements for access.

Hoehne said she would get back to the press corps with a timeline for action on the pending reforms by next week.

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