There were debates in Florida TV newsrooms earlier this week about whether to broadcast the 911 call of a 7-year-old girl who had seen her mother shot dead by her half-brother. Two TV stations decided against airing the audio, but three stations put it on the air.
Those three were wrong.
There’s no news value in that tape, just exploitation. You can tell the story well enough without exposing the horrible moment in this child’s life to the viewing public.
I have some experience with this. In 1987, I was doing the morning show at WCXR in Washington, DC. About halfway through the show one day, I was talking on the phone with a listener about something silly when she suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. Half a second passed before I heard something that sounded like a thud. I said, “Hello?” a couple of times before hearing a little girl’s voice in the background saying “Mommy??”
It was obvious something was wrong. I immediately took the call off the air and went to a commercial break. Then I picked up the phone and tried to talk loudly enough to get the girl to pick up the receiver, which she did. She sounded like she was about five or six as she told me that her mommy was lying on the floor and wasn’t moving. I asked if there was anyone else in the house. She said no.
I said we’d try to get her help and asked if she knew her address. She did, and with an eerily calm voice told me where she lived. I handed the info to my producer, who called 911 and told them to get police and an ambulance out to that house.
The commercial break was ending, and I knew my listeners were wondering what was going on. I had no intention of putting the girl on the air. I explained to the audience that we were dealing with a situation involving the woman who’d called and asked for their patience while we played a song. The other members of my morning team scrambled to help in any way they could while I continued to talk with the girl off the air.
When I could hear sirens approaching the house, I asked the girl if she could see police officers outside. She said yes and I told her to let them in, which she did. Soon, a police officer picked up the phone and explained that they were dealing with an unconscious woman and the EMTs were working on her. Not wanting to be in the way, I got off the line and let them do their job.
We found out later from a family member (who was nice enough to keep me informed on the aftermath of the incident) that the woman had died instantly of a brain aneurysm. No particular health problem, nothing genetic, just one of those awful flukes of nature. When the police contacted her husband at work, he rushed home to take care of their daughter who was, as you’d expect, having a hard time dealing with what had happened to mommy.
Obviously the tone of my show that morning was drastically changed, as we were no longer in the mood to be funny. None of us had kids at the time, but we all hoped that, if it ever came down to it, our child would be as helpful as this little girl. At some point, my producer reminded me that we had the whole thing on tape — we recorded every call on 10″ reels in a rack right next to me. No one on the show objected when I took that tape and locked it in the desk in my office.
When we got off the air, all of the other local media wanted to talk to me and it became a big story — they wanted to play me up as a hero. I deflected that angle and told them the truth, that it was the little girl who had acted heroically, not me.
They all wanted copies of that tape. They were furious that I refused to give it to any of them, from the TV stations to the Washington Post to a couple of news radio networks. Dave Marash, who was the anchor at the local NBC affiliate, seemed to be one of the few who understood when I explained my reasons to him during a live shot.
I also never played it on the air myself. To this day, no one has ever heard the tape of that little girl — which I still have in my basement — and no one ever will.
Why? Because to put it on the air would be to exploit the tragedy for shock value. Listeners (and viewers) didn’t have to hear it to understand the drama of what happened that morning, or to realize the real horror of a woman dying in front of her little daughter. Releasing that tape would do nothing to further the story — and there was the family to think of, too. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the name of the mother or the daughter here, even though they are burned into my memory. You don’t have to know them to get the story.
This was a no-brainer decision for me. Shame on those Orlando news directors whose standards and desire for ratings made them stoop so low that they made the wrong decision and aired that 911 tape.