The Newtown Tapes: Pain versus Purpose

by Melissa Brunner

911 recordings from the Sandy Hook school massacre were released Wednesday - but that hasn't ended debate over whether they should have been made public.

The calls were posted under court order, the result of a legal battle between news media (including CBS News) who argued for their release, and victims' families and Connecticut State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, who wanted to keep them private.

First, let's state the obvious. This was a horrific tragedy. Listening to it unfold - gunshots are heard in the background, one call is from a woman who was shot in the foot - knowing how many children lost their lives is not a pleasant experience.

That is, in fact, one reason the state's attorney argued the recordings should be kept private. He said it could cause pain for the victims' families, subject witnesses to harassement and violate the rights of survivors, who he said are essentially victims of child abuse who deserve special protections.

But does that mean the public should not have the option to listen and weigh the facts for themselves?

Connecticut Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott said no. He said releasing the audio recordings would allow the public to consider the law enforcement response to such incidents and whether it needs improvements. To not release them, he wrote in his ruling, "only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials."

Certainly, speculation will happen even with the recordings released. But at least now there is additional evidence to support or refute that speculation. Part of the media's role is to present the public all available information so the public can make their own judgements about a situation. Unfortunately, that means the good, the bad, the easy and the difficult. Fortunately, people can choose whether or not to read, listen or otherwise subject themselves to it. In Newtown, the school superintendent advised families to consider limiting their exposure to media as the tapes are released.

You may agree or disagree with this rationale. You may ask whether the public REALLY needs to hear the recordings. But the trouble then becomes at what point you allow public officials to draw the line and judge whether you do or do not need to see certain records for yourself or simply take their word for what those records may reveal. In this situation, the judge erred at the top of that slippery slope - make the information available and let the public decide whether or not they want to expose themselves to it.



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