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.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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14 Responses

  1. Da Goddess says:

    I’m a firm follower of the “should we?” school of thought when it comes to 911 calls. They are NOT always necessary and often amount to little more than ratings’ grabbers, which I abhor. Were we talking about timing of calls, police mishandling of the call, or something along those lines, maybe it’s right to air them. But the anguished screams for the sake of sharing the terror? I don’t think so. Same with the endlessly looped feed of images from a disaster that never changes, nor does the commentary or data available — after earthquakes, explosions, major fires, etc. Sorry, I turn the TV off at that point. Sensationalism for its own sake.

  2. Dr. Chako says:

    I, too, am one who turns off the TV if the content is too sensationalistic. Then again, this also prevents me from watching American Idol or any movie where the primary intent is embarrassment. I realize this makes my opinion automatically suspect.

    I know you travel overseas a lot. CNNi is a lot different from American CNN, don’t you think? When I lived in Germany, I was amazed at what passed for “normal” news. They never shied away from showing bullet-ridden bodies, anguish and even torture. It was the norm. I often wondered why it was different in America. We have an international reputation as being over the top, yet when it comes to what we call “news” we are actually quite conservative.

    I’m certain the foreign editors have gotten way beyond the point of asking “should we?” If they don’t show it, their competitors will. At what point will it stop occurring to US editors to stop asking “should we?”

    Has it already happened?

    -DrC

  3. KenP says:

    I am glad doc mention his embarrassment over certain shows. I don’t feel like such a woose.

    I understand the internal battle a news operation undergoes. They have a news director and advertising department constantly looking for another point or two.

    I don’t mind their scripting my news experience. Although, of late it approaches choreographing. At too many levels, the perfect newsroom pet would be Cerberus. One of his sets of teeth could remain locked on those stories that won’t die. We’ve got the missing wife one going on and on. It is a good story to grab with. That’s almost a given at this point. The media has forced our investment in the story. These reoccurring stories are always grabbers “The XXX Murders” or such. Once they establish the premise it becomes the hook as a later segment. The hype/tease ends up longer and more important than the piece.

    The media can be great — absolutely great. So can Doc or you or I. Other days we’re only able to admire those Lake Wobegon Norwegian Farmers’ kids. The media though is always aware that they are more than above average. That seems most apparent when they’re not.

    The media may be the most important part of our nation. If they aren’t, they’d certainly not avoid telling us they are. And, in a nutshell, that’s the problem.

    Print has words. TV has pictures. Me man. Me have TV clicker and the Internet to get opposing views. And that has scared the hell out of traditional media.

    This has been only 20% of what I could say on the subject.

  4. T says:

    Wow, maturity spike #2 in less than one week. Sounds sarcastic, but I’m being serious.

    Now I’m going to defend the use of the 911 tape on-air, although I fully agree with you to a certain very small point.

    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.

    If your visceral emotion was one of anger toward WSPA for airing such a tape, this defense is over. And the producer who gave a go to the “Oh God” graphic should be the one beaten.

    If, however, your visceral emotion was one of something other than anger toward WSPA, you’ve proven my point for me. The reporter/photog have managed to reach inside of you and pull a trigger. Isn’t that what they are supposed to do? Isn’t this what we tried to do ever single day for years on end?

    Had the tape been tempered a bit, using one second or less of the 911 call in the middle of the pkg, would that have been okay? I think it would have.

    The role of the journalist is to make you care about the facts. In this incidence, it seems like the 911 portion of these facts certainly crossed the line of can we/should we as it pertains to the extent of use.

    The fact remains that this 911 call made you feel like you were involved, the other relative that didn’t have a cell phone, maybe.

    That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to make people care about the story to the point where they can’t turn away. Use of the 911 call was justified. The extent to which it was used in this case was in poor taste in order to sensationalize the story, and it borders on unethical conduct.

  5. Student of Life says:

    T-
    I will argue the power of pictures and sound all day long. I will argue they often have the power to convey more emotion than the written and spoken word. However, in this case, using that tape was just plain wrong.

    I already cared that a young woman died in her driveway. The 911 call didn’t make me care any more than I already did; it gave me a feeling of shame that I was eavesdropping on this family’s raw terror and grief. I don’t need to feel that way to have a connection to a story, and that family certainly didn’t to suffer anymore than it was already suffering, especially at the hands of the media who have a responsibility to report the facts without exploiting people (I understand that some media outlets will fight me on the term “exploiting”–it’s very subjective, but there is an accepted standard of decency).

  6. CJ says:

    SoL: You may have cared that the woman in the driveway died… but that doesn’t mean everyone else did. Just because it didn’t make you more likely to care doesn’t mean that it didn’t make someone else more likely to care.

    I’ll defend the use of this.

    As, T pointed out, this tape is likely to producer emotional reactions. And if that emotional reaction drives just one person to reach out to police and give them the break they need to crack this case, then it was worth it.

    I think we all know how death investigations can get lost in the mix. We’ve seen it happen. An emotional tape like this, however, may ensure it stays at the top of people’s minds and helps provide justice for this woman’s death.

    I haven’t heard the tape myself, so it’s possible my reaction might be different if I did… but I doubt it.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  7. Darren says:

    We all heard the tape played in their 10p newscast and were kind of dumbstruck because all they ran was the mother screaming. WLOS also had the tape and ran a good portion of the mother talking with dispatch and not being quite as panicky. WLOS also ran the Oh god part, but only a portion not the entire bit.
    The reporter is a dipshit. I worked against him in a previous market and he was a dipshit there too. He’s the type that soils good journos names.

  8. KenP says:

    “The role of the journalist is to make you care about the facts.”

    To quote a big bucks TV journalist, “Give me a break.”

    To quote me, “I’m not a piano so quit trying to play me.” Leave that to media consultants who get bigger bucks than all these two-bit journalist hanging around and sniffing the stench at murder scenes and the like.

    They could give you visceral that’d have you leaving your lunch on the pavement. The good ones then come back and put people in the story without the mess on their shoes. That isn’t as easy as playing a 911 tape but it is journalism.

  9. T says:

    OMG. Am I reading correctly? Is CJ agreeing with me? Does this mean that I have to vote republican next time?

  10. Linda Casey says:

    I am that voice, I see no reason for it to be aired.
    First Charity did not tell us she was going to crank her car. It was 6 AM and when she was found we thought she had run over herself. Tonight was the first time I have been able to listen to the 011 tape and all Ican say is you are one sick person. to find my daughters death and my grief has been out there for public perusal makes me nauseous. I hope it boosted your ratings and I hope you sleep well, for tonight I will have renewed nightmares.
    You cannot imagine the agony behind that voice or the agony in my heart now. I hope I can find it in my heart to pray for you and your perverted mind. At this moment I would like to knock your teeth down your throat.

  11. Cynthia Raxter says:

    About 20 years ago, my aunt antique store was robbed and she was shot. WYFF played on the 6PM news (before the family was even notified) video of my cousin at the police barricade screaming, “Let me in there!!! That is my mother!!!!” Both my uncle and father were watching the news while eating their suppers. Two days later WYFF ran an apology and a story about the things my aunt had done to help the community. The apology was accepted. But did not fix the… heartbreak.

    The thing is, when there is so much a person is having to bear at a time like that, having the news media main-lining the agony is nothing but torture. Maybe that needs to be put on a plaque in the editors bull pen.

    I for one do not watch the local news anymore. If I want the weather or the sports I go to a website or ESPN or the WeatherChannel to get it. My heart has had enough agony of its own. I don’t need it being drip-feed into my veins by someone else. And. Honestly. I don’t want to do anything that in any way endorses torture.

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