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Friday, March 2, 2012

Saving 9-1-1

          Demi Moore’s divorce from Ashton Kutcher seemed a long way from ESPN and E:60 until a 9-1-1 emergency call was placed from her Beverly Hills home in January.  A female caller revealed that the actress had been smoking something, and was “convulsing”, “semi-conscious”, and “burning up”. 
          Moore was rushed to a hospital.  A few days later the 9-1-1 call was aired by broadcast media.  Subsequently, broadcast media came under attack by Dr. Travis Stork, who appears on “The Doctors”, a syndicated show in New York.  “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 Dr. Stork.
          He argued that 9-1-1 calls should be excluded from public record under patient-physician confidentiality, and vowed to “take it up with Congress”.
          E:60 producers have an eye on this.  They have used audio from 9-1-1 to powerful effect, perhaps most memorably in Ben Houser’s 2010 story of a Florida teen, Nate Winters, who lost most of his left leg in a 2008 boat accident.  The 9-1-1 call, placed by a friend of Winters from the boat, was used over video of the lake, and was cut between interviews with Winters and his brother as they reconstructed the scene.
          9-1-1:  “Fire Rescue”.
          Friend: “We need an ambulance.  His foot got hit in the boat propeller and it got ripped off.”
          9-1-1: “Is it amputated?”
          Friend: “It’s everywhere.”
          9-1-1: “Do you have something to control the bleeding?”
          Friend: “All right, we’re going to try.”

          Another 9-1-1 tape used to memorable effect was in “Sacred Acre”, the 2010 story of Ed Thomas, a Iowa high school football coach who was shot and killed by one of his former players.
          Dispatcher: “County 9-1-1.”
          Darryl Myers: “We had a shooting right now in the bus barn down at the high school.”
          Dispatcher: “At the high school, where?”
          Darryl Myers: “In the bus barn.”
          Dispatcher:  “In the bus barn, do you know who it was?”
          Darryl Myers: “No I don’t.  Uh, kids just come running out and said somebody shot Ed Thomas.”
          Dispatcher: “Ed Tho (gasp). Okay.”
          In neither story did the 9-1-1 tapes have news value - their value was in narrative and clarity.
          But sometimes a 9-1-1 tape does have news value, as was the case in the 2009 hospitalization of then-University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer.  University officials initially said Meyer’s December 6 hospitalization was due to “dehydration” and that he had been driven there by a friend.  But when ESPN obtained the 9-1-1 call placed by his wife it revealed that he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after complaining of chest pains and a tingling sensation on his side.  The 9-1-1 shed light on Meyer’s health (which led to his resignation), but more importantly, it caught the university in a lie.
          The potential news value of 9-1-1 calls is just one reason media want them.  Another is that they make transparent an emergency system that, all agree, needs to function at a high level.
          Nonetheless, at the state level, the trend in recent years has been toward the restrictions advocated by Dr. Stork.  More state legislatures are passing laws exempting 9-1-1 records - audio mostly - from public records laws due to privacy concerns and exploitation, according to Paula Lavigne, a member of ESPN’s Enterprise Reporting Unit. 
          “Blame TMZ and celebrity shows for that, because they don’t have much discretion in what they air,” says Lavigne. “Sure, in cases where the records are clearly public you have every right to air them in their entirety.  But you need to look at the big picture in terms of any blowback from that.  As long as you can justify a good reason for airing the audio - aside from just having a broadcast element - I think you’re on solid footing.”
          E:60 tries to use 9-1-1 tapes with discretion, said executive producer Andy Tennant.   The calls are evaluated much as crime scene photos, with caution toward graphic and exploitive content.
          “I understand why there is a movement to ban 9-1-1 calls from public records - many people feel airing those calls is a violation of privacy,” said Tennant. “We in the media need to do a better job of using those calls only in situations where they have news value or can help explain a story.  If they are used for the sake of melodrama or voyeurism, that’s when the media crosses the line.”
          E:60 producers have been rejected or ignored on several 9-1-1 requests. Dave Picker struck out on his stories about Dwayne Goodrich and Marvin Harrison.  Vin Cannamela came up empty on his story about Lexi Youngberg, a teenager who lost her leg in a boating accident in Michigan.
          SportsCenter producer Chris Bloxom asked Lavigne for help after he made an abortive effort to obtain the 9-1-1 call in December 2010 that preceded the death of La Roche College basketball coach Scott Lang, 41, who succumbed to a heart attack during a practice.
          Her advice to Bloxom:
          “Although 911 calls are public record in most states, Pennsylvania is a bit of an exception. The law states that, “The Act exempts 911 tapes but permits access to them or a transcript thereof ‘if the agency or court determines that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure.’ Section 708(b)(18).
          “The only upside here is that the agency has some discretion in releasing it to you. What you need to do first is find out which agency has that tape, unless you’ve done that already. You want the 911 dispatch center, which could be the city police department or some sort of city-county agency. You need to make the request to that agency. It would help if you could make a good argument as to why this 911 call is in the public interest. If that fails, then I’m afraid you will need a court order, which would involve making a request to a judge in that county. And you’ll likely need an attorney’s help with that.
          “One other angle you might try is to see if the family could help you. It’s possible that a relative could get the agency to hand over the tapes without a lot of hassle. I’m not sure what your relationship is with them, but if it’s good, you might go that route.”
          Bloxom filed requests through Pittsburgh police and the emergency response agency and was turned down.  He decided against hiring an attorney to seek a court order, and let the matter drop.
          To all producers and reporters Lavigne offers this advice:
          “When you make a request, you really HAVE to have an address...the calls are saved/logged by address and phone numbers. (And who knows what phone someone was using when he/she called.) They’re not usually logged by me on that. You should also have a date and an approximate time.
          “And make sure you use a public records request letter to ask for them. That’s usually helpful.
          “Finally, 911 agencies are organized in all sorts of different ways. In some places, the 911 dispatchers are part of the fire department or police department. In other places, the 911 dispatchers belong to their own separate agencies. And there can be multiple 911 agencies within a region. So, just make sure you have the right agency before you launch into a request.”

(posted by Steve Marantz on March 2, 2012)