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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Release of Newtown 911 recordings leads to difficult ethical decisions for news organizations

News executives were making some tough decisions yesterday with the release of calls made to 911 during last year’s school shooting in Newtown, CT.  The calls were released after a court ruled in favor of several Freedom of Information Act requests.

Even before the recordings were released, ethicists were offering guidelines for how the audio should (or should not) be used by the media.

Harry Bruinius, reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, sets forth what he terms 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.


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.

At, Sam Thielman notes leading television news organizations mostly chose to exercise extreme caution.

NBC was the first to say it out loud: “The families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn. shootings made it public that they did not want the 911 tapes to be released,” NBC News president Deborah Turness told staff this morning in a memo shared with press. “Unless there is any compelling editorial reason to play the tapes, I would like to respect their wishes.” The network subsequently decided not to air the recordings. CNN, too, said it would be circumspect and review the audio carefully, and ABC News told Adweek immediately that it would not use the audio at all.

CNN chose to air some portions of the audio, but also covered the ethical issue. Reporting for, Brian Stelter and Michael Pearson note that the network’s own legal analyst criticized the decision.

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.

Read the complete articles here:  Christian Science Monitor  •  •

Photo credit: Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters via linked Christian Science Monitor article



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