Media outlets cautious with Newtown 911 recordings

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(CNN) — Wednesday’s release of audio recordings of the 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings forced news organizations to make difficult — and sometimes unpopular — decisions about what to broadcast and what to hold back.

News executives said they were considering both the wishes of the community where the school was located — Newtown, Connecticut — and the journalistic impulse to report on one of the biggest news stories of the past year.

The recordings were made available to news organizations Wednesday afternoon.

CNN aired portions of the recordings in a report Thursday evening, including a 911 call from the school’s secretary. The report was also posted online.

The network’s report, preceded by anchor Jake Tapper’s warning of disturbing content, also included a call from a teacher who had been shot in the foot and one from a janitor who relayed information between police and dispatchers.

Immediately after the airing, a CNN legal analyst said the decision to air the recordings was wrong.

“Other than pure titillation, I don’t see any public interest served by this whatsoever,” Mark Geragos said.

One of CNN’s competitors, Fox News Channel, also televised some audio clips about an hour after the tapes were released.

Fox anchor Shepard Smith told viewers the network would “not be airing the most gut-wrenching moments.”

CBS said it would use some audio clips, but would not present all of the material or anything including gunshot sounds.

ABC and NBC decided not to broadcast or post any of the recordings, but said they would report on the contents.

In an internal e-mail to staffers, NBC said that “it is fine for all programs and the website to report on the controversy related to the release of the tapes and include quotes or information from the tapes, but without audio.”

Of course, in the digital age, the 911 tapes are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. A number of news publishers that linked to the audio, including BuzzFeed, incorporated warnings that the audio included “disturbing content.”

Many reporters and media analysts said the tapes were inherently newsworthy, but acknowledged that the calls from the school were emotionally wrenching to hear, particularly for people with ties to the shooting.

One Newtown official, Board of Selectmen member Patricia Llodra, said Wednesday morning that the release of the tapes “will create a new layer of pain for many in the Newtown community.”

Balancing act

While often criticized for using 911 tapes to exploit human tragedy, news organizations have an obligation to fight for the release of documents and records that can serve important public ends, such as disclosing improper conduct by authorities or insufficient response to emergencies or other issues, said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

Tompkins said Wednesday that editors had to listen to the recordings and decide whether the news value was sufficient to warrant using them.

“The ethical place to be is to listen and to make your decision on two things,” he said. “What is your journalism value in using or not using these things, and two, would the good from using them outweigh the harm?”

Emergency calls can often prove newsworthy, Tompkins said, as in the case of the Trayvon Martin shooting, in which a struggle and the fatal shot could be heard in the background of one call.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Wednesday, after CNN aired the clips, that he probably would have opted not to use the recordings, but said their release by the judge was the correct decision.

“I’m not sure how much this adds to the overall story, but I definitely think this is a decision for journalists to make, not for the government to make, about what gets broadcast and what doesn’t,” he said.

Too much pain?

Llodra, the Newtown official, said in a blog post that as they cover the 911 tapes and the first anniversary of the shootings, reporters should “recognize that there is great personal pain in this event and little public good to be garnered through the general release.”

She continued, “Imagine yourself as a parent of a child who was killed, or a family member of one of the six educators. Imagine yourself as a teacher or staff member in that building desperate to save the lives of children. Imagine you are the parent of a child who was able to escape. Then ask yourself, media person, what is the public good and how do I balance that against the hurt?”

By Brian Stelter and Michael Pearson, CNN

™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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