By William J. Kole
It’s journalism’s dirty little secret: Just because we have information doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to use it.
When The Associated Press asked officials in Newtown, Conn., for the tapes of 911 calls made during last December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it touched off a debate pitting privacy rights against the public’s right to know.
Newtown’s police department denied the request, and the AP appealed to the state Freedom of Information Commission. On Sept. 25, the commission ruled in favor of AP and ordered the tapes’ release.
That won’t happen until Connecticut’s courts rule on an appeal by Stephen Sedensky III, the prosecutor leading the investigation into the rampage, which killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders.
One of Sedensky’s arguments to the commission might sound plausible. Newtown has suffered unspeakable horror, and its citizens, as he put it, “shouldn’t have to worry that their calls for help in their most vulnerable moments will become fodder for the evening news.”
But that’s not what this is all about.
It’s not about a sensational media preying on innocents and exploiting their agony. It’s about reporters getting access to recordings that could shed light on the law enforcement response to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
This is why 911 calls are typically released around the country. It’s why the AP asked Newtown for documents, including copies of 911 calls, on the very day of the shooting. We do that routinely in news gathering, in part to examine the police response.
That is unquestionably a matter of public interest — especially in a massacre like this one, which sent officers from multiple agencies racing to the school. By refusing to release the tapes, Newtown broke the law.
“Tapes of 911 calls belong in the public realm,” The Hartford Courant wrote in a recent editorial praising the state FOI panel for striking “a welcome blow for open government.”
“Media rarely publish or air such graphic information, but citizens, journalists and researchers sometimes do use them in investigations, as is their right,” the newspaper noted.
Sedensky claims the tapes shouldn’t be released because his investigation is ongoing. Yet he admitted in June he never reviewed them. Others have questioned how their release could compromise an investigation in which no arrests are anticipated, since the gunman committed suicide as police closed in.
As the AP argued in our original complaint: “Although there is no doubt that the Sandy Hook murders were brutal and an incomprehensible act, that does not provide a basis to ignore the law.”
If the recordings are released, the AP would review the contents and determine what – if any – of it would meet our standards for publication.
We might wind up using little or none of it. But we have the right to see it. It’s our job to ensure that law enforcement is doing theirs.
William J. Kole is New England bureau chief for The Associated Press. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.