Newtown 911 calls: Should media have released them?

The Newton 911 calls are a classic dilemma for media outlets, which must weigh their role as purveyors of public information against the anguish the tapes could cause victims' families.

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters
A sign expressing displeasure with the media is tacked on a pole in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday. Nearly a half hour of 911 recordings from the shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December were ordered released by the state Freedom of Information Commission.

After Newtown, Conn., officials on Wednesday released recordings of the seven 911 calls placed from Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, news organizations faced a classic ethical dilemma.

On the one side are civic values seen as the essence of a free, self-governing people: The government must be transparent; a free press must be able to hold public officials accountable for their actions; and the greater good is served when those with governing power are not allowed to unilaterally control the flow of information.

“From a freedom of information standpoint ... – as heartless as this sounds – I’m not sure the concerns of the families of the victims should outweigh the public nature of the records of themselves,” says Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University in New York, who had not listened to the recordings at the time of this interview.

Yet when this information causes pain for victims and their families – especially in the case of the Newtown shootings, in which 20 first-grade children and six adults were gunned down – many ethicists take issue with the priority of these civic values. To cause such palpable pain and to lay bare the personal anguish of victims for all the world to see, many ethicists argue, violate basic ideas about how we should treat one another.

“In my mind, what good is served in releasing these 911 calls when there’s an obvious harm in doing so?” says Mark Pastin, president of the Council of Ethical Organizations in Alexandria, Va., and author of “Make an Ethical Difference.” “Which is, we force the parents to relive surely the worst moment of their lives.”

Many news organizations said these issues have been part of their editorial process as they listen to the recordings.

"The families of the victims of the Newtown shootings made it public that they did not want the 911 tapes to be released,” wrote NBC News President Deborah Turness in a memo to her staff Wednesday morning. “Unless there is any compelling editorial reason to play the tapes, I would like to respect their wishes."

CNN and CBS spokespeople made similar comments.

But Wednesday’s discussions are also part of larger questions in a rapidly evolving world of global digital media: How should news organizations balance their watchdog role and the exposure of individuals in cases like the Sandy Hook 911 recordings?   

“There’s a long and hard road ahead,” e-mails Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, and a fellow at The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. “Traveling it requires rethinking what ‘public’ and ‘private’ should mean today, and taking great pains to ensure regrettable harms aren’t perpetuated by myopic conceptions of transparency. These are immense ethical and legal challenges, with no easy answers to the question of what is best for society."

But journalistic ethicists and legal theorists still insist – at least from a legal perspective – that the free flow of information remains an essential civic value.

“It's important for journalists to be able to listen to those tapes, to see if there was something that we can learn from the process, and not just leave it to the government to tell us what to think,” says Chris Roberts, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama, and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Having said that, as a parent and as an ethicist, I really don’t want to hear them.”

But some ethicists point out that society already allows public officials to withhold information to shield individuals from harm.

“We allow them to do that in the case where a child is molested, and we allow the police to withhold the identity of the injured party cases of rape in the interest of not further injuring that party,” says Mr. Pastin of the Council of Ethical Organizations. “And the only difference in this case, is that the people to be injured are adults.”

“They’re clearly innocent, they're clearly not to blame, and they’re clearly people who have suffered greatly,” he continues, “and they’re clearly people who will suffer more if this happens. So I don’t think there’s a bright line that’s going to be crossed in this case.”

Information like the Sandy Hook 911 recordings will continue to raise these kinds of ethical questions for news organizations.

“When you think about loyalties, journalists have so many from which to choose,” says Professor Roberts of the University of Alabama. “Whether it be the loyalty to the audience, to the readers, to the values of the First Amendment being a check on government, versus the loyalty we owe to the people who have lived through this, and who are going to live through this again, no matter what we do.”

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