News or Painful Reminders?

By Casey Bukro

News media were divided on whether the the 911 audio recordings in the Newtown, Conn. shootings a year ago that left 26 dead were newsworthy.

That might say something about the ethical sophistication with which the media are judging the news.

Adam Lanza, 20, went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, and fatally shot 20 children and six educators before killing himself. Earlier, Lanza had killed his mother at home.

A year after the shootings, a Connecticut judge ruled that the 911 audio recordings of the event should be released.

“There’s still shooting going on. Please!” said a caller, identified as Custodian Rick Thorne, who was among those  who could be heard pleading for help.

CNN and Fox News broadcast parts of the recordings. CBS said it would use some audio clips. ABC and NBC decided against broadcasting or posting any of the recordings.

Many local residents and officials were against broadcasting the clips.

“I don’t understand the reasoning for the general public to hear them,” said Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a Sandy Hook first-grade teacher who survived the attack. “The families, they’ve already experienced such immeasurable pain and loss and sadness.”

These are the sort of decisions confronting news organizations at most disasters, weighing the benefit and harm of reporting details, sights and sounds.

The Sandy Hook 911 phone calls reveal the voices of scared callers, a calm and efficient 911 dispatcher and shots in the background. There are no screams or voices of children.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s senior legal analyst, said it could be argued that the audio reports served a public service by showing how the 911 call-taker handled the calls.  Most of the callers were calm. Toobin believed the contents of the tapes were not as disturbing as the event they represented.

The shootings also were a major event in U.S. history, coming at a time when Congress was considering gun-control measures.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “minimize harm.”

Some local residents always are likely to see what the media do as intrusive.

Reuters reported that a hand-painted sign had been fastened to telephone pole saying:  “Vulture media, you got your tapes. Please leave.”

Eventually, the reporters do leave. Seldom is any thought given to the emotional toll they take with them after seeing the slaughter of children.

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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