To Play or Not To Play: NBC and the Sandy Hook Emergency Calls

Image: A sign is seen along the route to Chalk Hill School where Sandy Hook Elementary School children will begin to attend classes in Monroe, Connecticut

In 10 days, it will be a year since our nation experienced the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting, where 20 children and six adults were killed in a matter of minutes by a deranged gunman. Today, the 911 call tapes were made public, which left an interesting dilemma for the media: play them, or just report on them?

I didn’t think very much originally of this ethics issue until tonight, like every night, my family sat down to Nightly News with Brian Williams at 5:30 p.m. The tapes’ release was not the main story, but it caught my attention when Williams said that the Nightly News staff had decided not to play them on the air. Instead, chief education correspondent Rehema Ellis, who had listened to the recordings, described what little could be found in them. As she said, they didn’t shed much light on the event other than to convey the calmness of the callers.

Before the release of the calls, the only recordings available to hear were the responders’ radio communications. According to NBC’s online story, the actual emergency call tapes were released “after state officials lost a fight to keep them under wraps.” The Connecticut Freedom of Information Committee allowed the Associated Press to have the recordings released, despite arguments that the families involved would undergo more anguish at having to hear them played on the news and recounted in articles. But, because we’re a country that has a fetish for dramatic violence, they got released so that every 24-hour news outlet can play them on constant loop for all to hear. Because if there’s one thing that’s needed a year after a mass shooting, it’s not gun law reform or empathy for grieving families, but a stream of sensational sound bites.*

*Can you tell that I’m a little angry over this?

The public has a right to information that affects them — journalists of all people believe this. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower/treason-committer (your choice) Edward Snowden subscribe to the same philosophy. But what separates the journalists from the self-serving, get-my-name-on-the-news info leakers like Assange and Snowden is that we take into consideration (or at least, we should) every party affected by what we tell the public.

Some “journalists” looked at the release of the tapes as two things: first, in the purest ethical sense, that the public now has access to another piece of what happened in Newtown last year. Second, and this is where my skepticism regarding the news broadcast business kicks in, the 24-hour cycles and nightly news shows now have something they can advertise on those teaser commercials run at the 40-minute mark of CSI: or whatever other show is on: “Stay tuned for the 10-o’clock news, where we’ll play the emergency call tapes from Sandy Hook.” Turn on, tune in and be exposed to the real-life crime drama of a school shooting, complete with exciting transcripts!

If you're good, Horatio Cane will even put on his sunglasses after delivering a tacky one-liner.
If you’re good, Horatio Cane will even put on his sunglasses after delivering a tacky one-liner.

Maybe I deviate from some journalists by saying that I wish the tapes hadn’t been made public. At the same time, having access to them has given the media a chance to show its maturity. When I was working at the Missourian, what I regard as an ethical and dependable news source, we learned that we have to look at a story from both the readers’ viewpoint and the perspective of those directly involved in or affect by the event.

The Sandy Hook families, be they the ones on the tapes or not, are still affected by the shooting.

That’s why I commend Nightly News for its decision to not play the tapes. Other outlets will be using them ad nauseam, I’m sure, especially with the one-year anniversary looming in less than two weeks. Each replay will be another reminder of the pain of both the nation and, more importantly, the families who have now gone a year without their children. NBC’s broadcasting decision to refrain from airing the recordings, however, gives hope that at least one outlet may be using more discretion, steering the public away from its love of drama or simply treating victims with a bit more care.


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