Monday, April 20, 2009

911 call debate misses the point, but is well-intentioned

Sen. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, has the right idea .. or, in my opinion, at least the right intention .. but his Senate Bill 105 misses the target and creates more problems than it solves.

His bill aims to prevent Ohio's broadcast outlets, including websites, from airing part or all of 911 calls. TV stations and others that air a call would be subject to a whopping $10,000 fine.

While I haven't spoken with him yet about the bill, print reports indicate that he's trying to protect the callers .. believing that their safety could be in jeopardy if they call in details on a bad guy only to have their name and voice put on the evening news.

It's a good point .. and one that's not lost in my disagreement with the plan.

What's missed is that police departments already have the power to hang on to 911 calls that might fit this category.

What's the harm in airing a 911 call of someone saying "My neighbor's house is on fire!" or someone saying "there's teenagers drag racing on my street!"

As a TV journalist, 911 calls can add drama and story-telling, but I won't try to argue that we couldn't live without them. We certainly can still provide the facts to viewers.

Sometimes, however, the 911 call itself is key part of the story, especially when showing the "customer service" side of dispatchers .. or when doing stories on response times.

So .. my argument is that police already have the ability to control the release of calls that could be problematic .. so why legislate it again? And why the hefty fine at a time when small websites (and TV stations too) are struggling like any other business?

I'm open to debate here .. but on the surface, this seems like a good intention but one that may be unnecessary.



vanillacokehead said...

Can we say, "prior restraint", boys and girls? I knew you could.

I think beginning in the early 90s, a backlash began to brew against media outlets in general in terms of public reaction to how they did their jobs.

Unfortunately, legitimate journalists have been unfairly painted with the same broad brush as exploitive, invasive tabloid media outlets. I think the public anger became more widespread about this after the Princess Diana tragedy in Paris when paparazzi were accused of causing the accident that took her life.

And in the last decade, the lines have become blurred between legit journalism and tabloid media reporting - many people lack the ability to distinguish between the two. As a result, things have become very tough on reporters.

Having the ability to air 9-1-1 calls and radio traffic is an important way to report on how public safety employees do their jobs - and provide important insight on the work they do and the cases on which they work.

If this passes, I don't see this withstanding a constitutional challenge in court...

Chris said...

I don't see this actually going anywhere. As you said, it would create more problems than it would solve. Lets say that the bill DOES pass for some reason and Ohio news agencies are banned from airing recordings of 911 calls in their broadcasts. Does this mean that someone will have to be sitting on a "bleep" button while Nightline is on in case they decide to use a 911 call? What about nationally syndicated radio programs? I realize that this argument is more of a slippery slope than anything else but the point I'm trying to make is that our airwaves are not bounded by borders drawn on a map and any regulation of those airwaves should be left to the FCC. I don't feel that a state senate has jurisdiction.

Ann Swinderman said...

As a fellow journalist, this proposed bill is a violation of a public record. There is no harm in airing a 911 call. The argument that the caller may not call or "blow the whistle" because someone may recognize his or her voice is ridiculous. They are either going to make a 911 call, or they are not.

I am disappointed that a bill like this is even being considered. I believe there are many other things that would make our communities safer.

After all who is going to go into a police station and request to hear a call. Not to mention does the police have the staff and time to assist these requests.

Why does our government insist on making laws to take away the current rights we have. I'd be interested in knowing why Sen. Patton decided to take on this agenda.

Mike Banks said...

As somebody that works in public safety communications, we have always treated the recording of a 911 call as a public record. If there is some type of concern we'd study the laws or get our law director's opinion prior to releasing the record.

Although they don't have to, Ohio journalists have been extremely respectful in what parts of a 911 call they play. In some of the most horrifying calls, the gory details are left out, out of respect of the viewer/listener and possibly even the family members.

I will quote Gary Allen, editor/webmaster of, on why it's important to allow the release and publication of these calls. This was in response to a comment on his website from the family member of a homicide victim, check the link here for the story and full comments or read below:

"This Web site is news-oriented and, as you mentioned, focuses on critical training and procedure issues. In this case, the issue for other dispatchers to consider is whether the calltaker promptly gathered information from the caller, and if the radio dispatcher relayed that to officers quickly. An officer arrived at the shooting scene 30 seconds after it happened, police say, raising the obvious question: could he have intervened if the dispatching process had been shorter? And that's a pertinent question for dispatchers at other comm centers to ask themselves, and to apply to their own call-handling. Without a question, if incidents like these are not shared among comm centers, examined by the community of dispatchers, and analyzed for improvements, then there really is no point to the training process. Dispatchers would simply be as good as they were on their first day of work, and never any better. "

"Quite simply, here's my position: I absolutely do not want to inflict the pain the family is feeling on another family, by ignoring what occurred here, and by not allowing dispatchers around the country to hear the 911 calls, discuss how they were handled, and to bring that experience to bear on future 911 calls they may receive. Are the friends and family who are willing to organize a boycott just as willing to keep these 911 calls a secret from the nation's public safety dispatchers, even if that means a mishandled call in the future?"

Eric Mansfield said...

These are great posts everyone .. and good discussion. I hope the State Senator reads them.

Mike .. you bring a great insight to this debate. Thanks for that. It gives me greater depth in my coverage as well .. stay in touch.

Ann ... you should join our discussion on this on the air. It's a good debate indeed.

Kay said...

Let's face it Eric, 911 calls are part of public records. The only reason the legislature would fine a station 10K for broadcasting them is pure and simple. $$$$$$ the incessant greed that we've all come to expect out of the political arena.

Anonymous said...

OK, how about a dissenting view? Aren't the airing of 911 calls really used for sensationalism to achieve higher ratings? Some of you seem to be in journalism so I expect you to have these biased views. Most 911 calls I have heard are people screaming uncontrollably after witnessing a horrific incident. Some state courts have ruled 911 calls NOT to be public record. What next? Showing bloody crime scene photos of homicide victims. Sorry for being anonymous but I do not have a google account. I have an Akron resident for 43 years.

Anonymous said...

I am disgusted with the Beacon Journal editors and the writer of the story about Mr. May, the Hudson school teacher who recently shot himself.

Exactly what was gained from rehashing this sad story? Just as the teenager is regaining his composure ans self-reliance, this needless article appears.

How did we benefit from knowing that he left, inter alia, a note that someone might use his new, usused tooth brush?

Is this what present day journalism has become?