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Case Study

The Ambassador’s Journal: A Case Study in Media Ethics

The five-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack is the basis of a case study on the ethical dilemmas journalists face in balancing privacy and the public's right to know.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens (State Department photo)

Aug. 14, 2017

On Sept. 11, Americans will observe a moment of silence not only for the thousands of lives lost in the 2001 terror attacks, but also for the four U.S. citizens killed five years ago in an attack on U.S. government facilities in Libya. Shortly after the Benghazi attack in 2012, a correspondent for a major news network found a private diary belonging to slain U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the scene of the attack. In what became a debate about media ethics, CNN used the diary — against the wishes of Stevens’s family — to inform the public about existing security concerns at the facilities. The five-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack gives educators the opportunity to address the ethical dilemmas journalists face in balancing privacy and the public’s right to know.

Without giving a definitive answer on whether it was ethical to publish the contents of the journal, we offer a classroom-ready case study on different factors journalists must consider in what they report.

Newseum Education uses a case-study approach in many of its media literacy and First Amendment classes offered on-site to visiting school groups. This allows students, in groups, to discuss a real-life case and what courses of action they would take if they were in that situation. We also provide questions to help guide the discussion, as well as background information for the moderator.

The Case

Four days after a U.S. ambassador is killed in a mob attack on a consulate abroad, a reporter with a cable news network finds the ambassador’s journal on the floor of the largely unsecured compound. The hard-bound journal consists of seven pages of handwritten entries by the ambassador, in which he expresses concerns about security threats and fears of a terrorist attack.  The TV network contacts the family within hours of the discovery and returns the journal to them via a third party. The family makes it clear they don’t want anything reported on the journal.

If you worked for the network, what would you do with the journal’s contents?

A. Nothing. Respect the family’s wishes.

B. Nothing. You removed personal information from what some might call a “crime scene.”

C. Use the journal for story leads and get other sources to corroborate them, but don’t mention the diary.

D. Report on the diary over the family’s objections.

E. Something else. Explain your idea.

Questions to Discuss

  • What overarching morals or values might be taken into account in each course of action listed above?
  • Was it OK to remove the diary from what some government officials called a “crime scene”? Does it matter that the building was largely unsecured, allowing the reporter to enter it?
  • If you were the network, how might you justify publishing the contents of the journal against the family’s wishes?
  • Why might the government try to prevent the network from publishing the contents of the journal?
  • Does the nature of the ambassador’s death make a difference in the decision to publish the diary?
  • Does the public have a right to know of the ambassador’s security concerns and how such concerns may have been a factor in his death?
  • Is privacy of the deceased ambassador and/or his family an issue? Explain.
  • What are some political consequences of publishing the concerns expressed in the diary? Should they be taken into account when deciding to publish or not?

Tips for student discussion: In small groups, students should talk through the questions and decide what action they would take if they worked for the network. Challenge the students to consider both sides of the issue, and what factors would alter their opinion.


Four days after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, a CNN reporter visited the attack site and found a diary belonging to Stevens. CNN notified the family and, after replicating its contents, turned the diary over to an Italian official at the State Department’s request.

CNN then took “newsworthy tips” from the journal and used them as a basis for further reporting a few days later. Without mentioning the journal as his source of information, CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted:  “A source familiar with Stevens’s thinking” said he worried in the months leading up to his death “about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi.”

After CNN’s initial reporting, other media outlets started receiving tips about the journal. Anderson then confirmed the existence of the journal and that it was used for reporting purposes.

The U.S. State Department called CNN’s actions “indefensible” and “disgusting” and said that it broke a promise to the family. Said Philippe Reines, an adviser to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “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 only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?”

CNN defended its use of the journal’s contents, saying the network knew of the family’s wishes but there was no formal “deal” not to publish its contents. It added that the public has a right to know about “the fears and warnings of a terror threat” in Benghazi, which it learned from “multiple sources.” The information, CNN added, is “now raising questions about why the State Department didn’t do more to protect Ambassador Stevens and other U.S. personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.”

The publication of the journal’s content sparked criticism toward the U.S. government for failing to address the security concerns and threats posed by al-Qaeda alluded to in Stevens’s diary.

Benghazi in the News Today:

  • Ansar Al-Sharia disbands:  After a special investigation, the U.S. determined the Benghazi attack was an act of terror carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Al-Sharia. In May 2017, the group announced it was formally dissolving itself after incurring heavy fatalities among its ranks.
  • Benghazi and Hillary Clinton: In the 2016 presidential election, candidate and former secretary of state Clinton was frequently criticized for her role in the Benghazi attacks. According to a report released after a two-year congressional investigation, Clinton was not directly to blame, but the report faulted the Obama administration for failing to provide adequate safety and resources.

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