Sandy Hook 911 Recordings: Real Value or Shock Value?

The 911 audio recordings from the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newton, Connecticut, were released on December 4, after the Associated Press sued for access. Media outlets are debating whether these tapes provide additional value to the public, or if they represent a grotesque exercise in shock-value reporting.

The Educated Reporter blog National Education Writer’s Association joined the discussion, and spoke with Dart Center Executive Director, Bruce Shapiro. “Context is everything,” Shapiro said. “Are you just posting a bunch of audio saying ‘Here’s what a school shooting sounds like’ or are you adding real value to the story you’re doing and to the coverage?”

While the victims’ families are generally resistant to the use of the audio tapes due to the emotional distress it may cause them, Shapiro’s fears run deeper. He worries that replaying the phone calls repeatedly in the mainstream media may encourage copycat crimes—he suggests that making the phone calls available only for a short period of time, though, might be a reasonable compromise. However, news outlets still need to think seriously about whether they are adding anything significant to the conversation by releasing these recordings.

For Kelly McBride, one of the nation's leading experts on media ethics and senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, these audio recordings can have value if they are used responsibly. For her, the recordings serve a "watchdog function" in allowing the public to scrutinize the reaction, but she adds that “the best thing journalists can do is to add more information to these tapes so they bring greater context and understanding.”