NBC was the first to say it out loud: "The families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn. shootings made it public that they did not want the 911 tapes to be released," NBC News president Deborah Turness told staff this morning in a memo shared with press. "Unless there is any compelling editorial reason to play the tapes, I would like to respect their wishes." The network subsequently decided not to air the recordings. CNN, too, said it would be circumspect and review the audio carefully, and ABC News told Adweek immediately that it would not use the audio at all.
While a CBS spokeswoman said that the network "will broadcast excerpts" from the tapes, the network will not use any gunshot sounds at all and won't use the audio in any promos or teasers. “Fox News will not be airing the most gut-wrenching moments from those calls,” said Shep Smith on the air at 3 p.m.
Most online outlets have chosen to run a brief AP story on the professionalism of the first responders.
It's a noble sentiment and one likely to be shared by colleagues in the TV news world as the first anniversary of the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but it elides a disturbing trend in television and online news in the recent past: grisly audio of 911 calls and police scanners has proliferated wildly in the last year. Part of this has to do with what TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall calls a sea change in the idea of journalistic ethics when it comes to crime reporting.
"Because of the ubiquity of recording devices and in the hands of amateurs, not professionals, there's a whole new category of news now, in which if you've got footage of it, it's newsworthy," Tyndall said. "Before, you'd send someone out to cover something with intrinsic news value; now it's the other way around—something would be a local story, but there's audio or video, so it becomes national."
But if you're looking for audio of violent crimes on television news or the Web, you're spoilt for choice—part of this is, as Tyndall said, because of smartphone ubiquity, but part of it is also because of a specific database of police scanner chatter called Broadcastify. Monitoring police bands has long been a pastime of the bored, the paranoid and the curious, but Broadcastify aggregates ongoing streams of police bands from nearly every county in the country and outlets from MSNBC to CNN to CBS News have cited (and reported on) the site, which is fast becoming a go-to resource for all things live.
"It's now just a routine thing to put [audio] in," said Tyndall, who dates the trend to this year (Broadcastify transitioned from its old domain, RadioReference.com, to a new name and a new site from in Sept. 2012). "The monitoring of police scanners has gotten better so you get air traffic control, police bands—any report has it." The shock value of the audio, he said, is now routine. Three years ago, Tyndall posits, the audio from Newtown would have been a bigger deal—now the New York Post publishes gore-covered pictures of the gunman from an fatal assault on a TSA employee at LAX and the AP quotes Broadcastify audio in a story on the Navy Yard shooting when, just a year ago, there was a serious furor over the use of 9/11 phone calls in the first minute of Kathryn Bigelow's multi-Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty.
The major difference with the Sandy Hook audio, of course, is that the victims were children. That may explain the need of news networks to stand between the public and a wider dissemination of the audio—indeed, the identity of the victim can make all the difference (Life magazine famously withheld frame 313 of the Zapruder film). Tyndall thinks that this kind of imposition of journalistic ethics between raw story material and the public is crumbling, though.
"The actual raw shock of it is going to be less than people think," he predicted. "I think people who are against it are being squeamish about it."