In Chuck Palahniuk's 1999 novel Survivor, protagonist Tender Branson is dictating his final thoughts into the black box of a doomed 747 and says, "The only difference between suicide and martyrdom is press coverage." I used to have this quote taped to my news computer terminal as a reminder to never give people who do awful things in the name of getting attention what they're looking for. It was also, I hoped, a constant nudge in the right direction when it came to keeping in mind the power we held as television journalists to influence the public consciousness. We could do astonishing good; we could irreparable harm. It all depended on how we approached our jobs and the responsibility to our viewers.
I had a personal rule throughout the later years of my career in both local and national news, and it's one that admittedly caused me to butt heads with a hell of a lot of upper-level managers: no 911 tapes. Not unless there was a legitimate newsworthiness in airing them, unless doing so would somehow benefit the public interest. This may sound insufferably pious, but I always just kind of considered it to be common sense. 911 recordings typically offer no insight whatsoever into the incident that spawned them. What they almost always offer, however, is a macabre and sometimes emotionally shattering glimpse into the horror faced by those who lived through that incident. They're often absolutely riveting, which is why so many news directors and managers insist on twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels trying to rationalize the airing of them. You've never seen a more cynical endeavor than some asshole news executive arrogantly arguing that his or her only interest in beaming the soul-crushing sounds of screaming and crying people out to thousands -- or even millions -- is the service of the people's right to know. It's bullshit. They know it and so does everybody else.
A journalist's first responsibility is to the truth, as cold and hard as that may be sometimes. But it's not his or her only responsibility. A journalist also has to consider the consequences of his or her actions. Again, the damage they can do. Particularly after a devastating event like, say, a mass-casualty shooting or attack, there isn't a damn thing wrong with taking the emotional state of the victims, their families, or others affected directly and indirectly into consideration when choosing what to details to run and what not to.
I haven't heard the newly released 911 recordings from the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that occurred almost a year ago exactly. I don't think I'd listen to them regardless of what insights they might provide in the case or what new information I might be able to glean from them. The wounds are just too deep and, believe it or not, too fresh for me to put myself through that kind of torture. And I have no association whatsoever with the tragedy other than being a human being and the father of a little girl. I can say this, though: anyone airing even a minor portion of those tapes needs to seriously think about whether they do provide any new insight or information in the case, because if they don't there's zero reason for anybody in the public sphere to ever hear them. Screw the nonsense piety about the people's right to know -- this is basic human decency and it should be abided by above all else.
Right now, dozens of news outlets are wisely treating the Sandy Hook recordings like they're a truck full of nitro-glycerine being driven through the South American jungle. Rather than simply dumping them into the ether wholesale -- or even pretending to carefully weigh the morality of running them while secretly just biding time to make the illusion look convincing -- most TV networks and online entities really do seem to be taking seriously the suffering these things can cause. That's a welcome change and one that's long overdue in situations like this.
Both ABC and NBC have firmly stated that they won't be airing any portion of the tapes either on television or online, with NBC going so far as to release an official memo from the top down to all its various platforms stating that for the foreseeable future at least the recordings should be off-limits. The implication in NBC's announcement is that what's on the tapes is both horrific and of no news value. The network's decision to err on the side of not wanting to inflict any more suffering on the families of the Sandy Hook victims is at least a step in the right ethical direction and a minor bit of atonement for its indefensible, exclusive airing of the final videotaped manifesto of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho back in 2007. Fox News has already aired small portions of the audio, setting it up with a disclaimer beforehand, and CNN and CBS both say they will likely run part of the tapes as well after reviewing them thoroughly. AP, meanwhile, was the organization that sued to get access to the things in the first place, citing the fact that 911 tapes are supposed to public record. The families of the victims fought AP in court and lost. AP, needless to say, is running the audio it fought for.
But despite not having heard them I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's nothing on these 911 recordings that anyone needs to hear. Why? Because there almost never is on any 911 recording. There's no lesson to be learned from hearing people who are terrified beyond words -- people who are about to die -- desperately pleading for help that won't come in time. Only the worst kind of ghoul or the most dangerous sociopath or even budding spree killer seeking inspiration would be fascinated by the sound of that much anguish. There's no value in 911 tapes -- not as a rule. They're satisfying solely in the most morbid and licentious of ways and rarely provide any understanding for those craving it. They can further traumatize people who've already been traumatized enough, though -- that much is for sure.
What's more, they can in some ways hand an added victory to the person who caused all that suffering in the first place -- one more twist of the knife from beyond the grave.
And even though it's a largely empty gesture, there's something to be said for depriving a killer of even an ounce of unnecessary press coverage -- and potentially an ounce of martyrdom.