Guidelines for 911 Calls
Consider the following questions before airing 911 calls:
What is the journalistic purpose for airing the 911 call? 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? When deciding to use the call, ask yourself these questions about the 911 system: Can the call:
- illustrate why cities need E-911 capabilities for cell phones?
- examine whether the dispatcher acted properly?
- expose problems with the way police responded to the call?
- shed light on how municipalities often have to transfer calls from one jurisdiction to another, even within the same county, wasting precious time?
Consider the stakeholders. How old is the caller? What is the caller's mental capacity? What pressure is the caller under? How prominent is the caller in the community? Is the caller a public figure? How will airing the call affect the caller, the audience and others who might have to call 911 in the future? Have family members of the caller heard the tape? How will you prepare the audience to hear what may be disturbing?
What do you know about the backgrounds of the people who are involved in the 911 call? Does the dispatcher, for example, have a great service record? How many other calls have come from the caller's location? What might the dispatcher know about the caller that does not show up on the tape?
What don't you know about the conditions under which the call was made? Are you certain you have heard the entire call? Was there more than one call?
What alternatives have you considered? You may decide that it is necessary to air the entire 911 call to inform the public of a system failure or an act of heroism. On the other hand, some other alternatives you could consider would be to transcribe the call, describe the call or only use the first words from the call. You also might stream the call on your website but not air it. Perhaps you might air just the audio on a late evening newscast but not on earlier programs. When considering alternatives, how could you expose weaknesses in the 911 system while minimizing the potential harm to the already traumatized family and dispatcher? Whose voices will you use and why? Is it necessary, for example, to name the dispatcher involved? If the caller is in distress, should you consider using only the dispatcher's voice and not the victims?
How would you explain your decision to air or not air the 911 call to your audience? What effect does time play in this decision? Even if you did not air the 911 call in the first hours after it was released, why might your decision change in the days or weeks ahead? How will you explain your decision to air the 911 call that you once decided not to air to the public, to the newsroom and to the stakeholders in the story?
What is the tone of your promotions, teases, graphics and lead-in? Even if your coverage is thoughtful, be sure your teases and promotions adhere to your station's journalistic principles. Teases and headlines can cause just as much harm as the news coverage itself.
Ask yourself if you use production techniques with the 911 audio, does it distort the audiences judgment about what they are hearing? If you make edits in the audio, be certain your audience knows it is listening to an edited version of the call. Slo-mo, dissolves, sound effects and other production techniques tweak emotions and have the potential of distorting the audience's judgment about what it is hearing.
What video is appropriate to use for this story on television? How will you justify your decisions to show or withhold pictures of the persons involved in the call?
How will you cover this story on your station website? Will you apply the same reasoning and journalistic standards to your news coverage on the web?
If police released the 911 tape but the family called your station and asked you not to air it, how would you handle that request? How will you explain your decision to air beyond competitive and production reasons? How will you use this audio beyond the initial broadcast. For example, will you allow this audio to be used as file tape in follow-up stories?
Created through RTDNF's Journalism Ethics Project by Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at The Poynter Institute.