Wednesday, 15 November 2017

"We are not going to let the media tell an incomplete story"

[What follows is excerpted from an article published yesterday on the PBS NewsHour website:]

The story [Michelle Ciulla Lipkin] shares starts out in 1988, just before Christmas. Then-17-year-old Ciulla Lipkin had dropped off poinsettias at her home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, in preparation for the holidays when the family would be together again. At around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Michelle’s mother, Mary Lou, had the TV on when her soap opera was interrupted with breaking news.

“It was true breaking news. Not breaking news like it is today,” said Ciulla Lipkin.

It was nighttime in Lockerbie, Scotland, and the images were dark and unclear, save for the flames, and the sounds of the ambulances. The same images flooded the television screens; the news outlets didn’t have much to go on, Ciulla Lipkin said, so they repeated them over and over again.

“No cellphones, no internet, no tracking his flight, no special announcement,” the youngest of three recalled. “The only news they got was what everyone else was getting,” something that would be hard to fathom today, she said.

It would take another 13 hours for the family to receive confirmation that their father, Frank Ciulla, was a passenger on board Pan Am 103 when it exploded over the UK on Dec 21, 1988.

Ciulla, a 45-year-old executive for Chase Manhattan Bank, was killed along with 258 [sic] passengers and crew and 11 local residents.

Almost 30 years later, his daughter remembers “like it was 10 minutes ago.” Ciulla Lipkin thinks often of that moment when her mother’s soap opera was interrupted — an interruption that would go on to symbolize the media’s long intrusion into her family’s life.

Iconic images like the cockpit lying in the open field, the crater where houses once stood and the searchers combing through the wreckage in the days after the Lockerbie bombing have seared themselves into the public’s memory. But the way the public remembers a major news event is not the same as those who experience the trauma firsthand, Ciulla Lipkin said.

“Once you are the subject of a news story, your entire perception of all news and all-things-media changes, because it’s about you and your family and your experience,” she said, “And that is something that I think people forget a lot.”

Like nearly all news stories pre-internet, the story of the Lockerbie bombing was a story largely told by the news media. “And I believed that story was my dad’s story,” Ciulla Lipkin said.

“Finding out three and a half years later later that that actually wasn’t his story — it was part of the whole story of the plane crash, but it was nowhere near my dad’s personal story — changed everything.”

In 1992 the Ciulla family discovered important details about what had really happened to their father in the bombing and crash. During a conversation with the Connells, the family who found Frank Ciulla’s body on their farm in Waterbeck, Scotland, they learned he had actually died six miles from the crash site — far from the crater where houses once stood. He was sitting upright, still strapped into his seat.

While it had taken 10 days after the crash for authorities to give official word that they had found and identified their father, the Connells knew after 20 minutes. They went to work shielding Frank Ciulla’s body and protecting him from the press. Like many others in the area, they washed and ironed the clothes of the deceased to give to family members.

Not long after this conversation, the Ciulla family visited the Connells in Scotland. Seeing the spot where he died gave them some hope in a story that had been solely filled with tragedy, Ciulla Lipkin said. After the visit, the Connells sent the Ciullas a letter, writing, “He was never just another victim to us. For months we called him our boy. Then we found out his name, he was our Frank.”

Learning more details helped the Ciullas feel some control over their father’s story for the first time — they felt they had taken their power back, she said.

“You don’t often meet the people who found your loved one after a plane crash. You don’t often create a relationship with them and visit them. You don’t often have them over to your home in New Jersey from Scotland,” Ciulla Lipkin said.

“We turned it around and decided we are not going to let the media tell an incomplete story. We are going to get out there and tell this part of it,” she said. But knowing how to access, analyze and evaluate media — and create media yourself — known as media literacy, takes education that, as a young teenager, she didn’t have.

“If I had been more literate about media and news, my reaction and processing of my dad’s death would have been different. I would have asked different questions. I would have wondered different things. I would have wanted different information,” Ciulla Lipkin said.

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