CNN and the Ambassador’s Diary: An Ethics Fail?

Did CNN commit a serious ethical lapse by keeping deceased Libya ambassador Christopher Stevens’s personal journal and reporting on its contents against the wishes of his surviving family members? The considerable list of people who say “yes” now includes the entire US State Department.

The facts: CNN acknowledges that its crew removed the personal diary of Mr. Stevens from the “largely unsecured” scene where he and three other US citizens died in a coordinated attack on the US embassy in Libya. The network’s reps also acknowledge that they asked members of the Stevens family several times whether they could report on the diary’s content and received word that the family members would have to review the material first. This is fairly standard procedure, no?

According to the Associated Press, CNN initially assured the Stevens family that it wouldn’t use the diary at all but reneged on that promise, citing national security concerns and a need to inform the public. The network’s reps later defended their behavior by accusing the State Department of “attacking the messenger” and insisting that the public “had a right to know” about the information contained within the Stevens diary.

So what was this huge scoop that CNN took from the document? And was it worth the risk they assumed by reporting without permission?

CNN’s revelations were these: Stevens was very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in Libya; he faced constant security threats in Benghazi despite his popularity with the locals; and he believed himself to be on the local Al-Qaida faction’s target list. Call us cynical, but these points don’t seem to add up to much of a scoop.

We can understand CNN’s perspective to a certain point: If Stevens and other representatives had more advance knowledge of the attack than we’ve been led to believe, then the American people need to know about it. But vague fears of rising militant activity in the area do not amount to proof of anything. CNN’s report simply supports the obvious fact that Middle Eastern politics are complicated.

PR pros: What do you think? Did CNN just do major damage to its reputation as a level-headed news outlet?