Sandy Hook 911 calls fuel sensitivity debate
Audio recordings released on Wednesday of 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting nearly a year ago left media executives wrangling over whether to broadcast them, post them online or even use text from the transcripts.
Seven recordings of landline calls from inside the school to police in Newtown, Conn., were made public.
Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six educators in the Dec. 14, 2012, rampage. He also killed his mother in their Newtown home before driving to the school.
The 911 calls reflect the horror and urgency of the situation, with terrified callers pleading with dispatchers to get police to the school, splintered with long silences between.
“I caught a glimpse of somebody,” a woman caller said from inside the school. “They're running down the hallway. Oh, they're still running and still shooting. Sandy Hook school. Please.”
Two unidentified teachers, one with a gunshot wound to the foot, called from classrooms to report what sounded like gunshots in the hall. Both told dispatchers there was no way to safely lock their doors.
“There's still shooting going on, please!” a custodian said to a Newtown 911 dispatcher as six or seven shots went off in the background. “Still — it's still going on!”
Newtown police officers arrived at the school within four minutes of the first 911 call, but nearly six minutes passed before they entered the building as they sorted out concerns over a possible second shooter, according to a prosecutor's report issued last week.
“We try to think about the value to the viewer,” said WPXI News Director Mike Oliveira, whose NBC-affiliated news team chose not to play any portion of the recordings. “There are times when (audio) files get out to help people understand, to expose some part of an investigation, but not this. I don't need to hear the gunshots to get how bad it was inside that school.”
WESA 90.5 in Pittsburgh deferred to its parent company, National Public Radio, as NBC made the announcement their national news desk would not be playing the files.
“The news is that the 911 audio was released, not what you're going to hear on those tapes,” said Jim Graci, program director at KDKA Radio, a CBS affiliate. “We will play little snippets — a clip of the operator taking the call, someone saying what is happening — but that's it. The last thing in the world we want to do is make this something salacious or draw attention to a tragedy we already know about.”
Reporters debate their stories constantly, Oliveira said, often deciding to drop a story before it bears the scrutiny of public opinion.
“People would be surprised at how many stories we don't do,” Oliveira said.
When then-Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer fatally shot himself in the head with a .357 Magnum during a televised news conference five days before his sentencing for bribery in 1987, journalists tried to exercise that same level of thoughtful consideration.
“People at the (Associated Press) conference that year were screaming at each other,” said Bill Rehkopf, host of a KDKA radio show. “Some ran the clip up to the gun coming out, some froze when he lifted it, some replayed the whole thing on the air. It was intense.”
In 2006, Lancaster County officials faced a similar debate when Pennsylvania news outlets filed right-to-know requests for 911 recordings between a dispatcher and Charles Carl Roberts IV, a gunman who shot himself and 10 girls at Nickel Mines Amish School.
Unlike Connecticut, Pennsylvania law dictates that 911 recordings become public record only when subpoenaed as evidence in a court proceeding. In the Roberts case, journalists acquiesced to copies of dispatchers' transcripts rather than full audio recordings.
“Sure, we have some responsibility for the harm our coverage could cause,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
Tompkins cited the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida last year, in which transcripts reveal a struggle and the fatal shot in the background of one call.
“If the information is newsworthy, if it sheds light on something that needs attention, then it should be reported,” he said. “Our duty is not to never cause harm, it is never to cause undue harm. The harm should be outweighed by the good that comes from it.”
AP Reporter Jack Gillum, who filed the initial Freedom of Information Act request for the Sandy Hook 911 recordings last December, said the yearlong court battle with Newtown officials gauged “how the police responded to one of the worst shootings in U.S. history ... after the government effectively ignored our request for months.”
Prosecutors opposed the tapes' release, arguing the recordings could cause the victims' families more anguish. As the town prepared to release the recordings, the superintendent of Newtown schools, John Reed, advised parents to consider limiting their families' exposure to the media.
Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, who supported making the calls public, implored the media to remember the “great personal pain” for those desperate to save the lives of local children.
“Hearing those calls takes us back to a day of horror and tragedy,” she said in a statement. “My plea is for the media to treat us kindly. ... Then ask yourself, media person, what is the public good and how do I balance that against the hurt?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.