Staff Editorial, Week 14: Public deserves to honor our fallen

April 5 marked the first time in 18 years that the media were allowed to photograph the return of fallen soldiers’ coffins into the United States, by way of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Photojournalists and reporters gathered in a small area set aside by the military to cover the arrival of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers, 30, of Hopewell, Va., who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on April 4. The cameras clicked as an honor guard unloaded Myers’s casket from the plane on its journey back to his family. Despite the late 11 p.m. hour of the ceremony, a number of newspapers and Web sites published large front-page photographs the following morning.

New Pentagon rules, first announced as the Fallen Hero Commemoration Act by Congressman Walter B. Jones (R-NC) last September, lifted a ban instated in 1991 by the first Bush administration that prohibited coverage of this process, known as a ‘dignified transfer of remains.’

Lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests yielded the very few exceptions to the ban. Most notably, an exception was made in 2000 when the Pentagon allowed coverage of the return of 17 soldiers killed in the suicide bombing of the USS Cole.

With the lifting of this ban, the country has taken a significant step forward in advancing the public’s right to know, and it has paved the way for reporters and photojournalists to further fulfill their duties and report on an important aspect of the current conflicts. Most importantly, it gives us a chance to more properly honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Opponents of these rules say that allowing this coverage would sensationalize this solemn ceremony, bringing public attention to what they argue is a private family moment, and that very few families would approve of the coverage.

The Pentagon’s decision strikes a balance between a family’s wishes and the journalists’ duty to report, as it still gives families the right to ask for their privacy and disallow press coverage. While Staff Sgt. Myers’s family was the first to allow coverage under the new rules, they declined to be interviewed or photographed, taking cover by a van and remaining out of the photographers’ sights. The media is never allowed to photograph the family during the ceremony, and any interviews would be conducted only in a specific area of the tarmac.

Before the ban was lifted, families have allowed media to cover the arrival of their fallen family member’s into their hometowns, the final leg of their journey from Dover.

As with any story involving death and other sensitive matters, photojournalists, reporters and their editors face a great deal of ethical and moral questions in deciding how to use the photographs they take in the brief 15-minute ceremony. While the photographs themselves aren’t gruesome or offensive, editors must still be sensitive to the grieving families by using the photos only as necessary and in context with obituaries and other stories about the service member’s life. When used in a respectful and dignified manner, the photographs will bolster the story of his or her bravery and sacrifice.

Opponents have accused legislators of manipulating public opinion about the war if these images ever made it in the news. The public has long been influenced by the constant stream of news stories, columns and debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ever since they began and it will continue, ban or no ban. Now that the first photos have been published the public can make its own decisions as to whether they tell the ‘true cost of war.’