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Drive Time

Better to Have Left 911 Tape Unheard

July 24, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My husband and I were heading east on the 10, our children asleep in the back seat, the rest of the car full of sleeping bags and lanterns and Trader Joe's sacks, when one of the local radio stations began discussing the killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. The station played the 911 call from the young man who found the girl's body. The station billed it as "exclusive" but later we found out the tape was being aired on stations all over. It was announced so quickly--right after a bit of news concerning the arrest made in the case--that I didn't have time to turn it off, so that poor young man's voice filled our car with heartbreak and horror while outside mega-malls and billboards flashed by.

It was the single worst thing I have ever heard on the radio, and that comes after a year in which we have all heard, and seen, some pretty horrible things. I still can't think of it, even as I write this, without the skin tightening around my eyes, behind my ears, without wanting to literally shake my head to jar the memory of it from my brain. And I only heard it once.

Part of my reaction may be due to motherhood--I have two young children and so this crime has left me frightened and angry, aware of the ruthless and arbitrary nature of fate, just as Sept. 11 did. In a minute, through no fault of my own, my life could change tragically and irrevocably. Hearing the tape, I thought I would be sick, and when the nausea passed, I spent the rest of the day feeling angry and upset in a queasy, shivery way that, in the end, was not a reaction to the crime so much as it was to the tape. I had no business hearing that call. No one, except the poor dispatcher whose shift it was that terrible day, had any business hearing that call. There was no purpose served by the media's constant repetition of that poor man's attempt to do the right thing and get through what must have been one of the worst experiences of his life.

What made me sick that day was not the horror of the crime--I had been well aware of that for days--but that the industry in which I work was going to milk it. There are times when it is necessary to show the human toll a tragedy takes, to expose the grisly details or broadcast the reactions of a witness or even a victim, in the hopes that it will ensure that the public does not dismiss human suffering as necessary or banal. God, we are told, is in the details, and giving a human voice to what could easily become numbers or faceless people in a far-off place is an important, if difficult, purpose of journalism.

But this was not the case of this tape. No sentient human being was unaware that a monstrous crime had been committed. Broadcasting that tape offered no new information or insight, except perhaps to prove that coming upon the body of a child is a mind-unhinging event.

Not all information is for public consumption and the gatekeeper role of journalist is constantly being reexamined and redefined. Back and forth the pundits went over the airing of the videotape that showed the execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and there isn't a city editor or photo editor in the country who hasn't agonized over whether a detail or photo from a crime scene had pushed past the line of illumination into the fen of exploitation.

It would be easy to say that all 911 calls should be off-limits--why should we hear the agonies of others when an explanation of the details would suffice? But, of course, there are times when terror or heroism or the sound of gunfire is vital to public understanding of an event. In making these decisions, context is important--as many media outlets found during the 9/11 tragedy, if you're going to expose fresh wounds to the public soul, you probably don't want to then cut to a SigAlert on the 405. The experience of receiving horrific news is different when you're in the car. There is nowhere to go, no physical distraction, nothing to do except brood.

To air a tape like that, news directors should be darn sure it's the public's business. And the sound of a young man's horror upon making such a terrible discovery just wasn't.

Mary McNamara can be reached at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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