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Media should be careful with 911 calls

Monday, May 25, 2009 | 11:32 a.m. CDT; updated 11:38 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 25, 2009

Great professors often give you great quotes to remember them by, usually without knowing that they’re doing it. A teacher I recently had in a class about government oversight, for example, offhandedly told us that “There’s something deeply un-American about taking public officials at their word.” (I can only imagine at how many cocktail parties I will shamelessly commandeer that line.)

Great professors also give you great lessons to remember them by, but they absolutely know they’re doing it. One such lesson from that same class came to mind last week:  No one, the maxim goes, needs to hear a woman screaming about how her monkey is ripping someone’s face off — the more general point being that the media should not abuse access to a certain type of public record, the emergency call.

You might remember the instance that gave rise to this rather colorful rule of thumb. This past February, a Connecticut woman’s 200-pound chimpanzee attacked her (then) friend Charla Nash. The owner, Sandra Herold, called 911. The chimp was killed by the police who responded. Herold was heartbroken. Nash was hospitalized. Connecticut was exposed for being too lax about enforcing animal control laws. Everybody loses.   

In an attempt to make the most out of this horrible situation, many media outlets got hold of Herold’s 911 call and (repeatedly) aired it. The problem was that nothing could be gained by publicizing Herold’s panic; those who played the call further traumatized those involved for a cheap, forgettable thrill, and that is hardly the aim behind making those records publicly accessible.  

Emergency recordings are public largely so that citizens can monitor emergency response, ideally in a way that exposes the flaws of and improves those systems. But Herold’s cries for help led to no revelations — and contained the intimate details of what were possibly the most traumatizing few minutes of her life.

Hence, I couldn’t help but think of the lesson learned through Herold’s exposure when I got on CNN.com last week and started to watch a video about kidnappings in Phoenix. The basis of the story was that the city had seen more than one reported kidnapping per day since 2007. Obviously there were factors waiting to be exposed, perhaps trends that could be battled in order to prevent future kidnappings.

Although the reporters started out discussing these ideas, the heart of the video quickly revealed itself to be much more superficial. The main event was a police-tapped call from kidnappers to the wife of a victim, and the lead-in was duly dramatic. “They do what we’ve seen on TV and movies,” the correspondent says. “They, they’re torturing him.”

Before the call was played, he issued a final warning: “It may be disturbing.” And it was, but mostly because using the call was such a travesty.  You can’t hear anything but androgynous screams that sound like they’re coming through a Fisher-Price walkie-talkie. On screen is a picture of a phone and a heading, written in all capitals, that reads “BRUTAL KIDNAPPING NEGOTIATIONS.” But there are no negotiations; there are no words, just the wails of a terrified man being heard by his terrified wife.

In an editorial, ironically published on CNN.com, Bob Greene advocates that the media lessen the use of emergency calls and explains why: “A person who calls 911 usually does so at the most emotionally naked and raw moment of his or her life. … without having granted permission, he or she has become part of the community's, or the nation's, entertainment mix. Talk about being violated — talk about being victimized twice.”

But this isn’t just about ethical behavior or respect for victims either. If the media don’t use public records responsibly, those avenues of information can be closed. A senator from Kentucky recently proposed a bill that would remove 911 calls’ status as public records because he wanted “to prevent news outlets from attracting viewers by broadcasting the frantic, sometimes final pleas of victims.” And similarly reasoned, detrimental yet well-intentioned bills have been introduced in other states.

If those records become less accessible, problems with emergency response systems will be harder to fix — largely because it would be difficult to find them by using calls, an act that has led to positive reform in many states. In Maine, for example, records were used by journalists to show that police were sometimes responding inappropriately (and fatally) to mental health-related calls. In Florida, 911 recordings were used to highlight problems with dispatchers, some of which lied to the media about how they fatally mishandled an emergency call.

The bottom line of the chimp-bred story is this: The media need to be thoughtful about when and how they use emergency recordings. Using them for scream-value alone is to risk a valuable means of protecting public safety and endanger the privacy of victims for something that often looks like a inane attempt to turn the news into "24."

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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