Is There Any Responsible Way to Publish the Sandy Hook 911 Calls?

How to separate news value from shock value

A sign in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 4, 2013 (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

With the release of audio recordings of the Sandy Hook 911 calls, media outlets are weighing the news value of using them against the inevitable criticism that to do so is macabre exploitation. 

The recordings were released Wednesday after the Associated Press sued for access, calling them a vital piece of the public record. New Britain Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott agreed, saying that to delay the release “particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials," USA Today reported. 

If news outlets opt to use the recordings, “context is everything,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “Are you just posting a bunch of audio saying ‘Here’s what a school shooting sounds like’ or are you adding real value to the story you’re doing and to the coverage?”

Shapiro pointed to the story accompanying excerpts of the recordings on the Hartford Courant’s website as a good summary of the news value that needs to be weighed against the other factors. From the Courant: “The calls provide insight both into the terror faced by teachers and staff members and the poise with which they sought help in the face of immediate danger. The calls offer few new details on police response or Lanza's actions that morning.”

The families of the victims who died at Sandy Hook opposed the release of the tapes, citing the intense emotional distress it would cause them. But Shapiro raised another concern: That constant replays of the recordings could exacerbate problems for people already struggling with mental health issues, in particular becoming dangerously stimulating to individuals already fantasizing about mass shootings.

One option might be to make the audio available for only a short period, Shapiro said. And there’s precedent for that. Shapiro pointed out that after the Virginia Tech massacre, the major news networks opted to air the shooter’s video of himself on the grounds that it contributed to the public’s understanding of his severe mental illness. But after the initial news cycle they removed the video from their websites to “avoid stimulating copycats or unnecessarily distressing survivors,” Shapiro said. “That struck me as a reasonable compromise.”

Given that “these are distressing and haunting recordings, editors should think hard about whether there’s substantive news value, in the context of their own particular mission, in making this vivid audio available,” Shapiro said. “It's not a freedom of information issue—that's been handled. The only question now is whether listeners learn anything meaningful, and whether that's outweighed by the consequences of these recordings being permanently, readily available to troubled people through mainstream news sites."

Weighing the news value of these types of recordings against their potential for harm is a challenging balance to strike, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and an expert on media ethics. She said while she’s generally opposed to news organizations serving as gatekeepers and deciding what people should or shouldn’t have access to, she agreed that there are times when it’s “completely reasonable” for news outlets to limit replays of violent video or audio. She noted that the video of the Virginia Tech shooter was an unusual situation given that it was mailed directly to NBC News, which then had to decide how much public access to allow.

In contrast, the Sandy Hook recordings are public record, and it’s not reasonable to expect news outlets to be the gatekeepers, McBride said. But there are certainly ways to be responsible when troubling content is made available, McBride said, such as adding links to to connect people with resources such as mental health services if they or someone they know needs help. 

“You have to ask ‘What is your audience and what is your journalistic purpose?’” McBride said. “I would hope good news outlets would find a way to use these recordings to advance the conversation we’re still having about Sandy Hook. What new information is there? What can you tell from the (911) phone calls about the policies and procedures taking place at the school? That’s really the key that will separate the journalism from the link bait.”

There is also a “watchdog function to these audio recordings being released,” McBride said. “The public gets to scrutinize the reaction and that’s very important. The best thing journalists can do is to add more information to these tapes so they bring greater context and understanding. How they do that is going to depend on what the news organization is and what audience they’re trying to serve.”