911 calls and the media
Updated to include comments from WSPA news director
Charity Worley told her family she was going outside to warm up her car. It was 6:30 in the morning in the North Carolina mountains around Flat Rock. The 28-year-old woman went outside and didn’t come back in. Worley was dead on the ground, the apparent victim of homicide. Someone, if the early test results are to be believed, beat her to death. When a relative found the young mother, she called 911. Her voice rose in a quick crescendo of “Oh, God, oh, God” until she was impossible to understand.
We know this because local CBS affiliate WSPA broadcast the 911 call on its 11pm news. We know it because WSPA New Channel 7’s 11pm producer teased the story with “We have the 911 call,” before the broadcast began. We know it because the reporter made the 911 call one of the first pieces of audio in the story. We will remember it, because once you have heard the anguished cries from somebody who has found a loved one dead, you never forget them.
Wil Wheaton isn’t a guy who keeps his opinion to himself. These days, the actor and writer gets paid for his thoughts on a fairly regular basis. He is among friends whose opinion I value a great deal. So, when he recently used his Twitter account to lambaste the media for its use of 911 calls, I listened. At one point, he wrote, “Local news is playing the 911 call of some kids, watching their mother die. Who needs to hear this?” A few months later, he continued, “There was a shooting at a Toys R Us here last Friday. Local news is playing the 911 tapes, which just feels like gawking to me. Can someone tell me how releasing 911 tapes where people are terrified or suffering serves the public good? Seems like exploitation to me.”
A one-time member of the traditional media, I quickly jumped to the media’s defense. “The exploitation is a byproduct of the good effects of the Freedom of Information Act,” I wrote back. I encouraged him to go after the people airing the tapes, but remember that the ability to obtain them is very important. I didn’t think a great deal more about it at the time. In fact, I didn’t think much more about it until I heard Charity Worley’s relative screaming on WSPA.
There is a great market for 911 call recordings. The network Investigation Discovery–an otherwise good bit of programming–has an entire series dedicated to 911 calls titled Call 911. Both local news stations and national networks scramble for 911 calls. It’s gut-wrenching audio that can add an authenticity to a story like little else. These recordings are largely available to the public because of the Freedom of Information Act. Though state courts have ruled in different ways on how these calls can be released, reporters can submit a FOIA request and often succeed in getting the recordings.
There should be no question about whether media outlets should have access to 911 calls. The recordings can expose police misconduct, dispatch failures, and any other number of things that would be in the public interest. To prevent the media from being able to get the materials under FOIA would give law enforcement and emergency personnel an unchecked power they should not have. In short, the media should have complete access to 911 calls, so long as the content of those calls could not damage an investigation of an on-going case.
Somewhere along the line, TV producers and reporters lost sight of the reason they have access to calls in the first place. They fought so hard to get information, they stopped asking “Should we really put this on the air?”
There are many screams that stand out in my mind from my career around death scenes. I can’t forget any of them. One of those screams, however, is more pronounced than the others because it made it to the air.
It was one of the beautiful spring days where kids hop in the cars after school and go speeding around the back country roads. On this day, three kids in Spartanburg County hit a tree so hard, the car ripped in two pieces and the tree trunk was bare of its bark. I was on the scene quicker than I wanted to be. I was the second crew from my station to arrive. The other was already at work and preparing for the early newscast. That’s when we heard the scream of a teenage girl rise up from a nearby field. It was shrill, uncontrolled, and it froze every person in their place. The cameras were rolling.
Though I had no personal role in that story’s production for the early newscast, I heard the scream on my station’s (WYFF) air. The nat sound at the top of the story was put in by a young go-getter photographer. He became one of the best at his craft, but at the time, he was naive and didn’t think. The fallout was immediate. It was embarrassing to anybody who worked in the media, especially people who worked for WYFF.
That is a short way of saying WSPA is not the only station to blame for exploiting someone’s grief to make a story more powerful. Its chief competition has done it. If I’m being honest, there were probably times I could’ve been more vigilant about protecting the privacy of people who were grieving. I did a lot of things that don’t make me proud. It’s only with some distance from it that I can look back and see where I failed.
I am not nor will I ever be someone who teaches people how to produce good journalism. I have friends who do that and do it very well. In this context though, I’ll repeat what some of my mentors taught me along the way. When producing a story, there are times when we shouldn’t ask “Can we?” but instead “Should we?” There is nothing wrong with using a piece of video or audio to elicit emotion from a viewer. It’s a mark of good storytelling to be able to weave emotion with fact-based reporting. There comes a time, however, when a producer or reporter should weigh the value of the emotional material. If it does less to provoke emotion or further the importance of the story and does more to exploit grief or invade someone’s privacy, the answer should be clear.
WSPA’s reporter should’ve known this. He’s worked in a variety of markets on both coasts. He’s not new to this game. He was the first line of defense. He sought out the tape and because he had it, he used it. There was a line producer who teased the 911 tape to bring viewers in. At no point could anyone have listened to the tape and thought, “This adds to the value of the story. We must air it.”
Instead, the tape was not only put to air, but a graphic transcription of the “Oh, God” screams was laid over the video. I can make no guess to how the reporter or the producer would defend the use of the tape, but whatever it is, I cannot imagine it would outweigh the visceral emotion I had when I heard the woman screaming.
To WSPA management’s credit, the 911 tape version of the story was pulled from the air by the next morning and I’ve been told it won’t air again. Obviously there are people there who understand that just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
When I offered WSPA News Director Alex Bongiorno a chance to respond, she wrote in a e-mail, “We did pull the package off the web and also made sure it didn’t run again once I saw that on air. As a news operation we take our role seriously to report the news while minimizing harm. Our station has had a policy to approach 911 calls carefully to ensure that there is news value in putting them on air. In this case there was absolutely no news value whatsoever and the airing of this callers’ grief seemed exploitive of the situation. Those who made the decision to air have been reminded of our policy and why it’s in place.”
The media know they have a lot of power. The good reporters and producers also understand that with that power comes the expectation of not only responsibility, but intelligence, reason, and compassion. Kudos to those who practice that every day, and a plea to those who have not: figure it out or find another job before you make everybody else look bad.