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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Should 911/999 emergency calls be broadcast on television?

I just discovered that the CBS Evening News airs live in the U.K. on Sky News at 12:30am. And the last two evenings’ broadcasts have opened with the Ohio school-shooting story, with the “scoop” last night of 911 calls from within the school as the shooting was happening. This is not at all an unusual thing to see on American newscasts, and 999 calls — the U.K. equivalent of 911 — are also broadcast in British news reports when they’re considered sensational enough.
As it happens, there’s a bit of a movement developing in the U.S. to ban the broadcasting of emergency calls. From TVNewser:

[T]he doctors from “The Doctors,” a syndicated show seen in New York on WCBS at 9am, made a bold declaration that the broadcasting of 9-1-1 calls should not be allowed.

“We’re gonna take a stand here on our show and say that, unequivocally, we do not feel as physicians that 9-1-1 calls should be sent out to be broadcast,” said lead “Doctors” Dr. Travis Stork.

That is heresy to TV news producers and reporters who will tell you their stories are made much better and more whole, not to mention more dramatic, with the urgency a 9-1-1 call provides.

“The Doctors” were discussing the case of Demi Moore and the 9-1-1 call that resulted in her being rushed to the hospital last month. Dr. Stork argues that as soon as someone calls 9-1-1, they are a patient and that doctor-patient confidentiality should kick in. “We are going to urge that congress takes this up,” said Stork.

There’s another issue that should be considered, too: Emergency calls often constitute eyewitness reaction to an ongoing crime, with no guarantee that the observations reported are accurate (numerous studies have demonstrated that eyewitness reports, even immediately after an event, can be wildly wrong). Do 911/999 calls spoil a potential jury pool with information that better belongs in a courtroom… if a judge decides it’s valuable evidence?

TVNewser sees one possible upside to broadcasting emergency calls:

[B]roadcasting of 9-1-1 calls can be a wake-up call for operators who don’t heed a caller’s warning soon enough.

It seems to me, however, that whatever training value emergency calls might have could easily be confined to the actual training of 911/999 operators. That value would not be lost if such calls were not aired on the news for their “entertainment” value.

What do you think? Should 911/999 emergency calls be broadcast on television? Do they add an important perspective on a story that could not be obtained in another way? Do they have true journalistic value? Or at they nothing more than lurid sensationalism?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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