Atlanta, like many markets, has a ton of stories about fire department, police, and EMT responses to emergencies. In some newsrooms the automatic has been “let’s get the 911 tape and play it on the air.”
The question is should we be playing 911 tapes? There’s no question we have the right. It’s not a legal issue, but it is a moral and ethical issue. Years ago I was at a seminar on ethics and this issue came up. It started with a discussion out of Miami where a motorist somehow drove off the highway into a retention pond. You could hear the entire conversation with her and the dispatchers and the confusion of what highway she was on and where she was located. She was begging for help on her cell phone. She was begging for someone to save her life.
The audio clearly revealed the driver was panicking, confused and scared. There was also no question the dispatcher on the line could have done a better job. But as you play the 911 you realize you are listening to a woman’s last words. While the 911 tape is playing you hear her drown – among her last words “Oh My God, I Can’t Breathe.”Shortly after that it goes silent except for the background noise of the dispatcher.
I will always remember that.
A station in Miami broadcasted the entire audio portion. Did the viewer need to hear it? Did it add to the story? Did you need to hear it to understand the story? All questions a news operation should ask before playing 911 tapes.
Here at CBS Atlanta we have a clear policy. Get the 911 tape but never play it on the air until a news manager has reviewed it.
We had two recent instances where we decided not to air 911 tapes. The first one happened during the Austell floods. It was the audio of the mother driving home at 5:30am when her car was swept off a road because of fast rising flood waters. The call is a woman panicking and much like the Miami case. You hear her last words. Her car was later found entangled in some trees. She was dead. While some stations in the market ran the audio we decided not to. In my mind it brought nothing to the story. Did we need to hear her last words? No. Did we need to hear her die? No. Could we tell the story without the audio? Yes.
The most recent case where we declined to use the video was the DeKalb woman, who called the fire department to say her house was on fire, but the first department never fully investigated it and she died when her house burned down. In this case we talked about it a little more. Her voice was fairly calm and matter of fact. But again, these were her last words and I felt playing them on TV was invading her privacy and her last moments of life. We were able to tell the story of the fire department screw up by using other 911 audio. We told the story without using her last words.
Some disagree with our approach. That’s fine. We talk about it internally a fair amount.
We deal with death and destruction every day. Many of us in the business are cynical and thick skinned. It’s how we deal with some of what we see. Our coping mechanism at times is to create personal distance with the tragedy we’re covering. A tragedy that is affecting families and communities in the market we serve.
But still there are times when we all don’t need to hear it all. You don’t need to hear it all. Their families don’t need to hear it all.