On Newtown: Family Grief Should Not Obscure Press Watchdog Role
January 9, 2014
Diana Huffman

Whenever a natural disaster or mass tragedy occurs, it doesn’t take long for the criticism of the media to begin. News organizations descend en masse.  They are often rightfully accused of making mistakes or being insensitive in their zeal to be first.

In the case of the Sandy Hook school shootings, the criticism of the press re-emerged a year after that tragic event on Dec. 14, 2012. The release of the 911 tapes (on Dec. 4, 2013) and the coverage of the anniversary of the killings once again put the media in the crosshairs of a debate over press coverage of such events.

First came the release of the 18 minutes of  911 tapes in response to an Associated Press request under the Connecticut open records law. A state judge upheld the ruling of a state freedom of information commission that the tapes were not covered under any exemption to the law, and despite the protest of the families of victims, the tapes were made public. Surprisingly, some news organizations immediately announced they would not play the audio of the tapes or post them on their websites because of objections from the families.

Many news organizations, including CNN, Fox News and CBS, played portions of the tapes.

What they played included no sounds of gunshots or voices of children. Their excerpts were of a teacher who had  been shot in the foot and a janitor who relayed information between the police and 911 dispatchers.

NBC and ABC announced they would not be playing any excerpts or posting the audio online out of respect for the families, some of whom had formally objected to the AP request to release the audio. During its nightly newscast, NBC made a point of saying there was no news in the tapes.

The almost knee jerk  reaction of some news outlets not to play the tapes ignored the fact that 911 tapes are public records in almost every state. They are public records for a reason. The release of these tapes enables the public to evaluate the response of the police and emergency response personnel.  It is a critical part of the news media’s watchdog role. Indeed the 911 tapes from Sandy Hook revealed that the 911 dispatcher and the teacher and janitor were calm and focused on how to minimize injury to students and teachers. What better way to convey that calm and focus to the public than to play the tapes.

It would be easy to say that the media should have heeded the pleas of the victims’ families and not broadcast or post the 911 tapes. There is no doubt that the concerns of the families should have been considered. But there is also no doubt that the interests of the public in knowing how government officials reacted to the situation also needed to be considered. The legitimate grief of the families should not obscure the watchdog role of the press.

No mainstream media that I know of chose to play audio of gunshots or of children in distress. But for NBC to say that there was no news value in hearing the calmness of the 911 dispatcher or the teacher or janitor who called 911 sets a horrible precedent for the next time 911 tapes are released. Perhaps NBC was still smarting from the criticism it received for repeatedly broadcasting the pictures and video of the Virginia Tech shooter in 2007. One wonders if families had not objected, if NBC’s independent judgment would have been that there was no news value to playing carefully selected portions of the tapes.

Major media also rushed to declare their refusal to report from Newtown on Dec. 14, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, after the families of victims and local officials asked news media not to come.

Many national news organizations went to Sandy Hook before the anniversary to record their reports but most stayed away on Dec. 14. Many local TV outlets announced in advance that they would not use Newtown as a backdrop for their reports.

WSHU, Connecticut’s public radio station, went so far as to say it would not use the word anniversary in its coverage because that implied a celebration.  (By the way, the first definition of “anniversary” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the date on which an event took place.” It says nothing about celebration.)

Some journalists traveled to Newtown that day but most did not.  One could make a legitimate argument that the only logical place to report from that day was Newtown. That is where it happened. Should news organizations swear off going to ground zero every Sept. 11?

Certainly descending on the lawns of the Newtown families or attempting to interview people who did not want to be interviewed would have been unseemly and unjustified. And replaying the horrible pictures of children, teachers and families from the day of the massacre also strikes me as unnecessary.

But it seems to me that journalists can be sensitive to the victims and the community that suffered terribly from this horrific event without abdicating their responsibility to exercise independent news judgment.

The United States is unique in that our Constitution mentions protection for only one profession — the press. One fact that defines our country is the lack of government regulation of the press. We alone among all countries leave it to the press to decide what is appropriate to publish or broadcast. The right to publish should be balanced against privacy and national security interests and against the wishes of those who are affected by what we publish.

But at the end of the day, we as practicing journalists and journalism professors must teach our students that journalists should balance those interests, not the government or for that matter, anyone else. The government often claims, without any specific evidence, that news stories will harm national security. And civilians often beg reporters not to publish stories or pictures that would embarrass them or cause them pain. It has become standard procedure for the public to demand that news organizations not repeatedly say the name of the suspects in the seemingly never ending mass tragedies. And many Americans believe that U.S. news organizations should never publish photos of Americans killed in war. But how else do we demonstrate to the public the real cost of war?

The job of journalists is not to please people. Nor for that matter is it to needlessly anger them. It is important that journalism students understand the impact of the news media on society, particularly in this era of 24/7 news cycles and the accompanying ability to instantaneously report facts, or what we think are facts, to millions of people. But to surrender our responsibility to make news judgments to the government or to people affected by what we do is to head down a slippery slope.


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