Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You Can't Contain the Facts: The Murder of August Provost, Part 2

Coverage of the murder of Seaman August Provost III at Camp Pendleton at the end of last month sputtered out basically the minute it got going. It never made the New York Times at all. It continues to be carried largely by the online media, and particularly by websites devoted to African-American and/or Gay communities. Provost's funeral was on Friday, and on Saturday U.S Representative Sheila Jackson Lee called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his murder.

To refresh your memory, Provost was murdered while standing sentry. He was shot three times, bound, gagged, and set on fire. He was African-American and, depending on which report your read, either gay or bisexual. He complained of being harassed by fellow service members, and his family believes his murder was a hate crime. The Navy, on the other hand, has said there is no evidence of a hate crime and referred to this murder as a "random act of violence."

The way the Navy has chosen to deal with this situation is unfortunate, and is probably making things worse for both themselves and the family. It turns out that when the Navy notified Seaman Provost's family of his death, they told them he was found unconscious on sentry duty and later died. They failed to mention that he was murdered, let alone share the details. Provost's mother found out he had been shot and burned from the television coverage.

This violates some very, very basic principles of how institutions should behave in a crisis. I wish I could say it was unusual, but unfortunately it is all too common. Institutions -- whether it's a school, the military, a business or the government -- like to clamp down on information. We have this naive notion that all that will become public is what we say, so we don't say much.

But facts exist whether we talk about them or not, and they have a way of making it into the public arena. Instead of asking, "What facts do we want people to have?" institutions should be asking, "If we don't share this fact, how will it look when it does become public." It's almost always better for people to hear bad news immediately, directly and completely.

The two rules I always share with staff in my school and other schools about sharing bad news with children are very simple:
  1. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (which also means no guessing) and
  2. Make sure that every known fact they will hear comes from you, and that no rumors do.

The minute you violate either of those rules, no matter how well-meaning you are, you lose all trust and credibility, and the same rules go for adults. As soon as it is known that you withheld information, gave inaccurate information or left facts to be revealed by the media or the rumor mill, no one will trust what you say and you will be completely ineffective in being supportive following the incident. People naturally want to blame others following an incident, and you will be the target whether you deserve it or not.

I wonder how this situation would have played out if the Navy had told the family how Seaman Provost died, had acknowledged the possibility of a hate crime even if they didn't think it was one, and had been honest with the Congressman on the base that day. I have to imagine that there would be a whole lot fewer conspiracy theories floating around.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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