Tuesday, February 10, 2009

911 calls: Better a matter of journalism ethics than state legislation

As the bill to ban public airing of 911 calls in Kentucky heads for passage in the state Senate, perhaps today, it gets national notice from Princeton native Al Tompkins, group leader for broadcast and online journalism at The Poynter Institute and a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. "It's a bad idea," Tompkins says, and explains why. But he also takes the topic beyond the legislative and legal realms into the ethical, where we think it belongs.

First, the reasons it's a bad idea, with links to examples: Airing 911 calls can "provide important insight into criminal cases;" show how dispatchers give bad directions, make these and other errors and ignore repeated calls; and reveal how people abuse the service. "It is nowhere near as effective if we do not have actual access to the 911 calls," Tompkins says of the last example, and it can also apply to his earlier ones.

Supporters of the bill say they're motivated by compassion for victims and their privacy. Those are factors journalists should consider before broadcasting 911 calls or posting them on Web sites, Tompkins writes in today's "Al's Morning Meeting" on the Poynter site: "One reason we may be seeing this kind of legislative blowback is because of the misconception that journalists only use 911 calls to make stories more sensational. My Poynter colleague Bob Steele and I wrote ethical guidelines for when and how to use 911 calls on the air and online."

That process starts with questions: "Does using the call help better tell the story in a way that is not sensational? Can the 911 tape illuminate broader issues about the 911 system and its effectiveness? Can using the tape help critically examine the 911 system or help illustrate how effectively the system works? Other concerns include the age, mental capacity, community prominence and situational stress of the caller, and the potential impact on the caller and family." Tompkins and Steele offer many other questions and considerations. For their full set of guidelines, click here. A click on that link could help you make a better decision -- and perhaps, if this bill fails, avoid providing ammunition for similar measures in the future.

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