Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Heart does matter in journalism

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
It is indeed a changing world.

In his May 4 Change of Subject blog, Zorn laid out some very convincing arguments against the use of 911 recordings, specifically mentioning the use of the recording of Julia Hudson when she called police upon discovering her mother’s body in what turned out to be a triple murder in October 2008.

The media gained access to that tape after petitioning for its release to the public during the William Balfour murder trial, Zorn wrote. Balfour was being tried for the murders of three members of the Hudson family.

Zorn questioned whether the media, including his own employer, should have aired “what amounts to an audio snapshot taken at the worst, most devastating moment of this poor woman’s life?” I admire how ably he cuts right to the heart of the matter.

He notes that 911 calls are part of the public record, which means that are accessible to and can be used by the media.

But, just as the Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm argues that simply having the ability to clone does not mean scientists should conjure up long-extinct dinosaurs, Zorn argues that the media’s access to 911 recordings “doesn’t mean we should” air or post them.

There was a time as a reporter and during my early years as an editor when I would have argued aggressively against Zorn’s view. Such recordings present the reader/listener with a human side of the tragedy that often gets lost in the often sterile, just-the-facts kind of details that are relayed by law enforcement. Even quotes by police officers or detectives frequently seem to lose something as they fall back on their own jargon. Perhaps that is their profession’s way of trying to maintain detachment from the horror they witness all too often.

I also would have argued that those recordings must be public to ensure greater transparency, for instance, when something goes wrong during an emergency call. I still would make that argument. But note that my logic here does not necessarily extend to actually airing or posting such recordings, nor would I make the argument that they should never be aired, printed or posted online. There might be some very compelling reasons to do so, although I think such circumstances would be rare.

There are a number of factors that would explain why my once-hardline stance on this issue has softened with the passage of time. Unfortunately, they all revolve around personal experience.

As a reporter at a fairly small-town paper, I wrote about the brutal murder of the son of a Wyoming legislator and rancher whose family I had come to know and respect. Several years later, in 1990, I wrote about the kidnapping, savage rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl from Rawlins, Wyo., whose mother and father I came to know after their lives had been hopelessly, horribly mangled by their daughter’s killer.

Some years after that, while living in Fort Collins, Colo., I was witness to the immediate aftermath of a shooting in the parking lot of the church my wife and I and our children attended. Hours later, after police had taken the statements of every one of us, I went home still wearing clothing stained with the blood of a good friend I had held until the ambulance arrived. He survived that murderous day; the gunman died in surgery, hours after he had shot his ex-wife to death and then got into a shootout with my friend, a cop.

While I returned home without a mark on my body, my soul had wounds that eventually would scar over. But in those first months afterward, I got just a glimpse of how crippling post-traumatic stress can be. My family and I had not suffered a single, physical wound that day, yet we had become the lesser victims of a crazed gunman.

For the first time in my life, I had gained a depth of understanding I’d not known before about what it is to be a victim. The compassion I had felt before toward the families of those I wrote about suddenly came into perspective and seemed woefully inadequate. Part of me questioned whether I had had any compassion at all.

Those experiences served to reshape the way I thought and felt about victims of crime or other tragedies, made me more sensitive to their needs. The death of the girl, in particular, helped me to understand that sometimes, at least for some family members, it helps to get out as much information about the crime as possible. I remember at one point my boss questioning me, asking whether we should include as much detail as I had used about the sexual assault and murder. I had shown great discretion, however, and showed him that. In the end, he agreed most, if not all of the details I had written should run.

The girl’s mother and father, at one point during the months of coverage, actually thanked me for providing the level of detail I had. I think that for them, my coverage served to head off awkward conversations with friends, neighbors or acquaintances. Even more, I think they simply wanted the world to know the horror their baby had suffered at the hands of a man most viewed as a monster.

But my boss was right to bring up the idea of discretion. There needs to be a thoughtful consideration of whether the information advances the story, helps the reader to gain a clearer understanding rather than simply satisfying some morbid or salacious curiosity.

Perhaps what most solidified my thinking on this issue came several years later, as I listened to a 911 recording while making the long drive from work in Cheyenne, Wyo., to my home in Fort Collins, Colo. It was an hour-long drive, and Denver radio station KOA had a talk show, After Midnight, hosted by Rick Barber. Over the past week, as I sorted through Zorn’s column and my own experiences, I learned Barber’s show was canceled in January, which is a shame. He had the 1 to 5 a.m. slot, and as I remember, he was balanced and thoughtful in his approach to the topics he and his listeners discussed each night. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was tolerant of opposing views and was generally patient, even with the oddball or occasional bigot who called in from time to time.

For some reason, on this night, however, Barber chose to play a 911 recording in which a woman called police while she was being attacked in her home. During the course of her call, the attacker strangled her — if I remember correctly, he used the cord from the very phone she was using to call for help.

I no longer recall the point Barber was making the night he played that recording. Perhaps he chose to discuss the tape because some media outlet already had aired the poor woman’s screams, choking and gagging as she died. I do know that while listening, my eyes watered up to the point that I had to pull over for a minute or two to clear my vision.

No one should have heard that woman’s final screams and cries of fear, the words she could not utter as that cord was yanked around her throat and tightened mercilessly to choke the life out of her. Death is an incredibly intimate, personal thing as it is. It is all the worse when it arrives violently. As I heard that recording air, I felt like an eavesdropper expecting some juicy tidbit but finding horror instead.

In his column, Zorn agrees that journalists should continue to have access to 911 recordings like this. But he also lays out a very good argument that this access comes with responsibility. “And responsibility demands discretion.”

I agree. Yes, there may be times when recordings such as these are needed to convey the full weight of a story. But shock value should not be construed as that need, nor should the argument that we should because we can.