(CNN) — Wednesday’s release of audio recordings of the 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings will force news organizations to make difficult — and probably unpopular — decisions about what to broadcast and what to hold back.
News executives are 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.
Many say the tapes are inherently newsworthy. But the tapes will be emotionally wrenching to hear and will probably shock and horrify at least some portion of the audience if television networks and websites choose to make the audio widely accessible.
One Newtown official, Board of Selectmen member Patricia Llodra, said Wednesday that the release of the tapes “will create a new layer of pain for many in the Newtown community.”
Representatives of several television networks signaled Wednesday morning that they would approach use of the tapes with caution.
“CNN will review the tapes when they are released and make a determination then about what, if any, we will use on air and online,” a spokeswoman for the network said.
A spokeswoman for CBS said, “we will make an editorial decision once we’ve listened to the tapes.”
Some television networks will almost certainly broadcast some portion of the audio on Wednesday but only after reviewing the tapes independently.
In an internal memorandum, NBC News President Deborah Turness emphasized this point to staffers: “We must listen to the tapes when they are released and make our final decision. But for the avoidance of doubt, no NBC News network outlet online or on TV should use the tapes until that decision has been taken.”
Turness acknowledged that some families of the shooting victims have been against the release of the tapes. She wrote that “unless there is any compelling editorial reason to play the tapes, I would like to respect their wishes.”
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.
In deciding whether to use the Newtown tapes, Tompkins said, editors shouldn’t make up their minds until after they are released.
“I think you’re going to have to listen to them and find out if there’s any news,” he said.
“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?”
If news outlets choose to make use of the tapes, editors should carefully consider the “tone and degree” of coverage and take pains to explain their decisions to their audience.
Emergency calls can often prove newsworthy, Tompkins pointed out, as in the case of the Travyon Martin shooting, in which a struggle and the fatal shot itself could be heard in the background of one call.
“Very often, 911 tapes can shed tremendous light on acts of heroism, on acts of cold-heartedness, on efforts to respond.”
But fighting for the release of information that should be available to the public doesn’t mean news organizations should, or even will, make those details available to their audiences, he said.
“A bad reason for using them is if they are merely interesting, emotional, sensational and just raise public emotion without any illumination,” Tompkins said.
Too much pain?
Llodra, the Newtown official, said in a blog post that as they cover the 911 tapes and the one-year 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?”