Just under two weeks before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, the town of Newtown has released audio of the 911 calls from the day of the massacre. The calls, which were requested on the day of the 2012 shooting by the AP and other news organizations as a routine step of reporting on emergency situations, have been the subject of a massive struggle over the balance between the public's right to know and the privacy of the town and the victims families in the shooting's aftermath.
The release of those calls has long been opposed by the town, on behalf of the victims' families, who say that there is no news value in the recordings.
The legal debate over the tapes ended last week, when a judge ordered the town to release them to the media. Unsealing the 911 calls, which are public record, allows the "public to consider and weigh what improvements, if any, should be made to law enforcement's response to such incidents," Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott wrote at the time. But since no one has really questioned the police response, there is much debate over what, if anything, is newsworthy about their content that would justify playing them.
Rachael Maddow took up this issue months ago in a segment on her MSNBC show, urging networks to refrain from broadcasting the tapes for the sake of the victims. While Maddow's conclusions are up for debate, she did make a useful distinction here between the freedom of information issues surrounding the release of the calls, and the choices news outlets can make when distributing them to the public. In other words, is there any value in listening to the audible gunshots in the background of some of the calls, just because you can?
The Associated Press, for their part, focused on the conduct of the 911 operators speaking to witnesses of the shooting, implicitly praising the "calm" response. The Wire won't be directly posting the audio from those tapes, but they are all publicly available at the town's website.
It seems that the most newsworthy part of the calls will remain the debate itself, which is just one part of a larger (and longer) debate among state officials and legislators over Connecticut's freedom of information laws — a question to which there is no easy answer. Earlier this year, Connecticut passed new restrictions on the release of public information, a move implicitly prompted by the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. The state still hasn't released the police report into the investigation of the tragedy, only a shorter summary of those findings. The full report is expected some time next year.