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The Sounds of Violence

Categories: Canada, Journalism, World

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Parents are reunited with their children following the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The recordings weren't long, but they packed a huge punch. What they contained was disturbing and illuminating.

On December 4, 2013, a court in the U.S. ruled that 911 tapes connected with the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school would be released to the public.  Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into the school on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, killing 20 children and six educators with a semi-automatic rifle.

The recordings were made public after the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission approved a request from the Associated Press, saying that while the tapes' contents would be "a searing reminder of the horror and pain of that awful day" but they would also underscore the "bravery and professionalism" of the first responders and other adults involved.

The court's ruling pretty much summed up the balance that editorial leaders here at CBC News had to strike in deciding what portions of the five taped segments--if any--we'd run on CBC radio, television, and online. The tapes contained conversations in which terrified callers talked about the shootings and their fears, as well as inspiring examples of calm and reassurance on the part of the 911 operators.

The first decision was made by Jennifer Harwood, Managing Editor for CBC News Network. Our all-news network was on the air live, and is often the case, there was competitive pressure in play. Other all-news networks were getting the same material and some would be slamming it to air as quickly as possible.

Quickly recognizing the two-sided nature of what we were hearing, Jennifer made an important initial ruling. Until we'd had time to assess the tapes thoroughly, and senior journalists could come up with a call on what was suitable to air, CBC News Network would not air anything from the 911 calls. This was a thoughtful choice, and the right one.

Senior managers played the tapes and huddled, and a note from our Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices went out on CBC News' internal Alert wire, the system we use to ensure that our journalists across Canada, on Radio, TV and Digital, all get the same editorial direction at the same time.

That note reiterated that we should avoid sensation and exploitation. It's one thing to report on the release of the tapes, noting that they are chilling, and discussing legal issues around the tapes' release. It's another to air the tapes themselves.

In some situations our producers felt it was important to air excerpts of the tapes. So we discussed what additional considerations we needed to have.

For starters, we needed to think about the time of day a program is on and the context in which the audience is experiencing it. Are they likely listening to it in the car while picking up kids from school? That's different than airing it on television at 10 P.M.

We also needed to include a warning about potentially disturbing content, so that if someone wanted to turn down the sound or change stations, they could.

And we tried to focus on excerpts that would not include the frightened-sounding callers...but instead airing excerpts from the responders. We were struck, for instance, by the calm and reassuring professionalism demonstrated by 911 operators.

We emphasized that repeated and extensive use of any of the tape was not an option - concision and restraint needed to prevail.

We work hard to get Canadians the news, get it fast, and get it right... but we also focus on making solid choices about how we do our work. As you can see, one of the ways we do this is sometimes by hitting "pause".

David Studer
Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices
CBC News

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