REGISTER VIEWPOINT: Keep 911 calls public

Certainly a call to 911 can show a person at his or her most terrified and vulnerable, and certainly that person would not want the
Sandusky Register Staff
May 13, 2010

Certainly a call to 911 can show a person at his or her most terrified and vulnerable, and certainly that person would not want the whole world to know his or her pain simply for sensationalism.

But it can also show our safety services' most immediate interface with the rest of us at its best -- or worst.

That's why Ohio lawmakers should put the brakes on every effort to seal 911 tapes, and other public documents, and reverse the trend away from secrecy to open, transparent government. The same efforts is being made in Alabama and Wisconsin.

Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming already keep recordings private, according to the Associated Press. In most states, they're public.

They should stay that way.

This newspaper and many other news organizations have been roundly criticized for broadcasting, or making available on the Web, tapes of 911 calls. The emotions, both in the calls and in the criticism, are often raw, and certainly there is a segment of the public that is interested in them for the thrill.

The recording of the 911 call reporting a suicide on East Perkins Avenue was disturbing, not only for the incident itself but for the shuffling of the caller from dispatcher to dispatcher, and the caller's tone going from distraught to disgusted as he had to repeat his story to each new dispatcher. The public disgust following from that, we believe, helped galvanize local dispatch agencies into cooperating and combining.

That's why we do it.

And although we seek 911 recordings when we can, we don't publish or broadcast every one. Sometimes the debate over whether to publish is passionate, sometimes angry. Sometimes the news value is not enough to overcome the sensationalism.

One thing is certain, though: We cannot count on public officials to make that decision for us. And the titillation that drives too many decisions to publish or air 911 tapes means we in the media have to continue to weigh every decision based on the value that decision will bring to the public.

Down one path is journalism at its best, in the public interest.

Down another path is journalism at its cesspool worst -- but far worse than that is allowing the government to use it as justification to keep yet more public information from the public.