Journalists balance reporting, restraint with 911 call audio

February 26, 2013 01:30

By Edward Esposito, RTDNF Secretary-Treasurer

A domestic violence call turned deadly Sunday morning in Twinsburg, Ohio. Police have charged 50-year old Glenn Wong with aggravated murder in the death of his 46-year old wife, Tami. Police say they were called to the Wong home on Abrams Drive after 7:00 Sunday morning by the 10-year old daughter of the couple, who can be heard on 911 audio pleading for dispatchers to send police to her home. The couple can be heard arguing in the background as the dispatcher talks to the child, even advising her to take the phone and her eight-year old brother outside the home for their own safety. Audio from the call quickly escalates as the domestic altercation intensifies and screams of Tami Wong can clearly be heard in the background.  Ed's station decided not to broadcast nor post on the web the 911 call in its entirety. What follows is Ed's follow-up story, outlining his station's decision and those of other news outlets in the region, as well as legislative efforts in several states to restrict access to 911 call audio.

Sunday's death of 46-year old Tami Wong following what appeared to start as a domestic violence case is, unfortunately, something that happens way too often in our society. Death at the hands of another, whether it be a stranger, a friend, or a family member. In this case, it appears by husband.

In this case, police were first called by the daughter of Tami and Glenn Wong. As with the case of 911 emergency calls across Ohio, the recordings of these calls are considered public record and are available not just for the news media but also the public at-large.

The issue for the media in Ohio is not whether these records are public; it's whether the publication or broadcast of 911 audio is responsible journalism.

Members of our news department discussed whether to use the audio either in part in our radio broadcasts or in the entirety online. The screams of the mother are clearly heard, as is the distress of her 10-year old daughter's voice. The sound of Glenn Wong's voice and the cries of his eight-year old son are clearly heard. The dispatcher's concern for the safety of the children, and fast response of police and an ambulance, is clearly heard. It is graphic and extremely disturbing. There is a raw power of audio going direct from speaker, to human ear, directly to the brain. And the heart.

We discussed whether it was important for the public to hear for themselves the panic of a child witnessing the brutal attack on a parent. We talked about the public's right to know for themselves what kind of pressures 911 dispatchers are under when handling calls, and how their training is geared toward getting the information first responders need to deliver more effective service when those in trouble need it most. We discussed the impact on the Wong's daughter and son.

We clearly have the right to air the audio, either in portions or entirety, including those graphic sections where the murder victim can be heard screaming and the reaction of the 10-year old child on the phone with the dispatcher. The fact the call includes a young child is a strong determinant in our decision, as is the very graphic content one can clearly hear. The question isn't whether we can air the audio, it's should we air the audio? In this particular case, our editorial judgment is to not air and not post the more graphic audio. We are using less-graphic segments so our listeners and web readers can gain a better understanding of the 911 system and some of the pressures dispatchers also operate under. We are pursuing the story line of counseling not only for the daughter involved, but also the dispatcher.

In the end, we concluded there was a public good for our listeners to understand what happened between the caller and the dispatcher, but there was nothing to be gained by hearing the graphic audio making up most of the call.

The media is not a monolith; each news organization has their own editorial standards. WTAM-AM News Director Darren Toms noted "...these always trouble me," responding to an email. WEWS-TV's Jill Manuel said "...we made the decision not to use any of the 911 tape due to the distressing nature of child's situation. We explained to our viewers why we did not air any audio from the call." Dan Salamone of WOIO-TV made the same call, noting "...we listened to the audio and are not using any of it. It’s too exploitive and disturbing." The links above go to each station's web coverage of the story.

Ohio.com, the website of the Akron Beacon Journal, posted a story based on the Twinsburg Police Department account as of Monday evening, with a more detailed version published in Tuesday morning's edition. Editor Bruce Winges said "...the Beacon Journal believes that 911 tapes are public record. We also lean heavily toward protecting victims in crime stories in general. This one is different because the father has been charged and named in our coverage. While we did not use the names of the children, they can be identified through the father." The Beacon Journal coverage did not include audio. WKYC-TV included a photo of Glenn Wong but no multimedia as of Monday evening. WJW-TV included a video package from their noon newscast. As of Monday evening, the story had not been updated on Cleveland.com, the website of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

There have been attempts over the years by Ohio lawmakers to declare these 911 calls, and dashcam video, off-limits as public records.  Most recently, State Senator Frank LaRose (R-Akron) was spurred to offer legislation that would have restricted use of dashcam video in cases where it showed a public safety officer being fatally wounded. LaRose felt it was too painful and intrusive to the surviving family of officers lost in the line of duty, driven by the case of Sandusky, Ohio police officer Andrew Dunn. Dunn was shot and killed after stopping a man on a bicycle.

LaRose, an Iraq combat veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, told me he was aware there was Defense Department video showing fellow soldiers killed in action and wouldn't want the families to see those images. He proposed the public could view the video at a police station, or the period immediately before and after the violence be excised, but the graphic footage not be available for broadcast or use on the web. LaRose told me when he introduced the legislation his concern wasn't for conventional media such as newspaper, television or radio but directed at independent bloggers who may not operate under the type of ethics guidelines offered by industry groups such as RTDNA (The Radio Television Digital News Association link to 911 guidelines), SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists link to their Code of Ethics), PRNDI (Public Radio News Directors Incorporated) and APME (Associated Press Media Editors) as well as other groups covering print, broadcast and digital journalists.

In 2010, State Senator Tom Patton (R-Berea) wanted to ban the broadcast of 911 calls on the grounds it may have led some to not get involved in a case. Some law enforcement officials argued the broadcast, as opposed to simply reading a transcript, dissuaded witnesses from coming forward. I was part of a group of journalists arguing public understanding of issues, including the credibility of the 911 dispatch system, was strengthened when the public actually heard what people said as opposed to seeing words on paper.

Why is it so important to hear and see the news for yourself? As an example, write down the phrase "I didn't take the money" on paper, and then read it back, adding emphasis on different words, moving from one word to the next in a new sentence. You'll soon hear the difference:

    "I didn't take the money" leads the listener to believe the person didn't take the money;
    "I didn't take the money" infers innocence;
    "I didn't take the money" could lead someone to conclude it was borrowed, not taken;
    "I didn't take the money" might lead a listener to think something other than money was taken.

The transcript doesn't change; the meaning of the sentence does depending on how it's heard. There's more guidance on broadcast (or web) use of 911 calls in this post by Al Tompkins on the Poynter.org journalism site.

These are uncomfortable decisions to make, but certainly don't hold a candle to the pain families feel when tragedy and our system of open government (including reports from law enforcement) collide. As seen above, news organizations vary in their approaches to each individual story, taken on the unique situation each poses. Not using 911 audio on this occasion, or a decision to use it in limited fashion, may not be the same approach in the next issue. They are, by nature, considered on a case-by-case basis. Each is different.

There are 13 states listed by the National Conference of State Legislatures with some confidentiality restriction on 911 audio, including restrictions on first responders by Connecticut and New Jersey to penalize police, fire or ambulance workers from distributing photographs or video from accident scenes.


Does your state restrict access to 911 call audio? Have you encountered difficulty obtaining audio from local law enforcement agencies? Has your station made a tough call about editing or not airing graphic 911 call audio? Tell us about it in the comments below.