Sandy Hook 911 Tapes: How to Use Them?

Cerberus-Freedom Group

Earlier today, the 911 tapes were released from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took place December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. The release of the tapes comes after a November 30 court ruling precipitated by a lawsuit filed by the Associated Press to give media access to the tapes. As Katherine Fung reported on The Huffington Post, some responses to the ruling were harsh. Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” questioned the value of releasing the tapes and the potentially irresponsible airing of their contents. “Is the content of those tapes … going to increase public understanding of this incident so much that it outweighs the offense to morality and decency of putting them on display?” she asked. Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor and senior vice president, acknowledged that people might have strong feelings about the release of the tapes. But, she said, “It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

NBC News president Deborah Turness discussed the responsibilities that news organizations like NBC News must bear when deciding how to use the tapes. In a memo obtained by The Huffington Post, Turness wrote:

The families of the victims of the Newtown shootings made it public that they did not want the 911 tapes to be released. Unless there is any compelling editorial reason to play the tapes, I would like to respect their wishes. We must listen to the tapes when they are released and make our final decision. But for the avoidance of doubt, no NBC News network outlet online or on TV should use the tapes until that decision has been taken. Using the tapes could cause distress and we must therefore proceed with great sensitivity and respect, particularly as the first anniversary of the shootings approaches.

Broadcast news outlets who have the ability to air the tapes must wrestle with a number of morally complex issues. At the center of them are balancing respect for victims’ families and getting access to public information as part of journalistic due diligence. Although some might question AP’s decision to force the release of the tapes to begin with, it is reassuring to see that media professionals recognize a moral balancing act when they see one. What do you think?

Sources: Associated Press,

Update (December 5, 2013): Maddow took to the air again last night, criticizing FOX News, CNN and CBS for airing portions of the tapes, as reported today on The Huffington Post.



On December 22, 2012 a Westchester County, New York newspaper, The Journal News, published a scalable, interactive map of area pistol owners complete with names and addresses. The information had been acquired from public records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Response to the newspaper’s actions was swift. One reader commented, “This is the single most irresponsible and dangerous piece of ‘journalism’ I have ever seen.” Another referenced personal attacks on the staff, saying using guns against liberals would be “like shooting fish in a barrel.” To that end, The New York Times reported that the newspaper had gone so far as to hire armed guards to protect its headquarters and a satellite office.

There are a number of ethical concerns here. As Kathleen Bartzen Culver, associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics points out, in publishing the data in the way that it did (with scalable maps, names and addresses of pistol owners), it effectively facilitated gun thefts and crimes against those without a means to defend themselves. Moreover, the published map did not include ownership of shotguns, rifles or assault-type weapons, which do not require permits in Westchester County.

Culver rightly suggests that The News Journal should have considered using the data in three more effective ways:

  • “Compare permit data to burglary reports and uncover whether and how legal weapons slip into illegal use;
  • analyze crime data against permits to examine how often legal weapons are used in self-defense and when that use is lethal; and
  • examine patterns in permit data, such as clusters within neighborhoods, unlawful permits to felons or permits in homes with a domestic violence conviction or restraining order.”

In what ways were the decisions made by the newspaper’s staff morally defective?

Update (February 26, 2013): Here’s a terrific follow-up piece from PBS’s MediaShift on how newsrooms should use data.

Source: PBS MediaShift