FOI ethics: Weigh benefits and harm on airing 911 tapes

A good story today by The Associated Press highlighted the effort underway by some states to close 911 records because of a few media outlets airing distressed callers. I am quoted as saying that it’s important to keep the records open so we can make sure our public safety agencies are working correctly. One government person argues that people will be less reluctant to call 911 if the tapes are public. That’s just silly – as if a person in dire need is going to assess the public records issues before making a call.

However, this raises a very good point about FOI ethics. Just because we have access to records doesn’t mean we have to put them out there for everyone to see. We can choose some restraint, voluntarily, weighing the benefit with the harm. Airing the tape of a woman screaming and sobbing might be gripping for sweeps, but is it really necessary? Maybe, maybe not, depending on the situation. But we must think it through carefully and be able to explain to the average person the public benefit of airing the tape. With rights to accessing records comes responsibility, and if we don’t take that responsibility seriously we’ll lose those rights.

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