(CNN) — Wednesday’s release of audio recordings of the 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings forced news organizations to make difficult — and probably unpopular — decisions about what to broadcast and what to hold back.
News executives said they were considering both the wishes of the community where the school was located, Newtown, Connecticut, and the journalistic impulse to report on one of the biggest news stories of the past year.
The recordings were made available to news organizations at around 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Shortly afterward, CNN said in a statement that it was exercising caution with regard to the tapes.
“We are preparing a report that will provide context to the recordings and report any new information learned,” the network said. “That story will air later today after we have had time to carefully review the material.”
One of CNN’s competitors, Fox News Channel, televised some audio clips about an hour after the tapes were released. The Fox anchor Shepard Smith informed viewers that the network would “not be airing the most gut-wrenching moments.”
A spokesman for ABC said that network, which produces newscasts like “World News” and “Good Morning America,” would not broadcast any audio from the 911 tapes at all, but would report on the information contained within. Another network, CBS, said it would broadcast some audio clips on its newscasts, but not the entire tapes. (CBS will not use any of the gunshot sounds that can be heard, for example.)
NBC reached the same conclusion as ABC: the network’s newscasts “will NOT air the audio on television or online,” according to an e-mail message distributed to NBC News staff members.
The internal e-mail added, “It is fine for all programs and the website to report on the controversy related to the release of the tapes and include quotes or information from the tapes, but without audio.”
Of course, in the digital age, the 911 tapes are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. A number of news publishers that linked to the audio, including BuzzFeed, incorporated warnings that the audio included “disturbing content.”
Many reporters and media analysts said the tapes were inherently newsworthy, but they acknowledged that the calls from the school were emotionally wrenching to hear, particularly for people with ties to the shooting.
One Newtown official, Board of Selectmen member Patricia Llodra, said on Wednesday morning that the release of the tapes “will create a new layer of pain for many in the Newtown community.”
While often criticized for using 911 tapes to exploit human tragedy, news organizations have an obligation to fight for the release of documents and records that can serve important public ends, such as disclosing improper conduct by authorities or insufficient response to emergencies or other issues, said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
In deciding whether to use the Newtown tapes, Tompkins said, editors shouldn't make up their minds until after they are released.
"I think you're going to have to listen to them and find out if there's any news," he said.
"The ethical place to be is to listen and to make your decision on two things," he said. "What is your journalism value in using or not using these things, and two, would the good from using them outweigh the harm?"
If news outlets choose to make use of the tapes, editors should carefully consider the "tone and degree" of coverage and take pains to explain their decisions to their audience.
Emergency calls can often prove newsworthy, Tompkins pointed out, as in the case of the Travyon Martin shooting, in which a struggle and the fatal shot itself could be heard in the background of one call.
"Very often, 911 tapes can shed tremendous light on acts of heroism, on acts of cold-heartedness, on efforts to respond."
But fighting for the release of information that should be available to the public doesn't mean news organizations should, or even will, make those details available to their audiences, he said.
"A bad reason for using them is if they are merely interesting, emotional, sensational and just raise public emotion without any illumination," Tompkins said.
Too much pain?
Llodra, the Newtown official, said in a blog post that as they cover the 911 tapes and the one-year anniversary of the shootings, reporters should "recognize that there is great personal pain in this event and little public good to be garnered through the general release."
She continued, "Imagine yourself as a parent of a child who was killed, or a family member of one of the six educators. Imagine yourself as a teacher or staff member in that building desperate to save the lives of children. Imagine you are the parent of a child who was able to escape. Then ask yourself, media person, what is the public good and how do I balance that against the hurt?"
To listen to the 911 tapes, visit The New Haven Register.