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Our View: Keep 911 tapes public

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Journalists and politicians alike are occasionally accused of playing emotions to manipulate a certain reaction, and in some cases the criticism is warranted.

We’re hoping state Sen. Bill Cunningham’s proposed legislation to exempt 911 calls from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is just a misguided notion instead of outright manipulation, but Cunningham, D-Chicago, is wrong either way.

The legislation is a reaction to the release of 911 tapes from the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which Cunningham found to be a violation of “personal privacy.”

The broadcasting of the 911 calls, and many other 911 calls, was certainly a grave ethical issue for journalists. Many news outlets wrestled with the difficult matter, coming to different conclusions. NBC, for example, decided not to air any of the recordings. CNN aired portions but also covered the ethical dilemma.

There can be, and are, journalistic reasons why the public should hear 911 recordings in many instances. Obviously, they are used in court proceedings for a reason. They have evidentiary value, and Cunningham’s legislation would allow the release of such records if they are used in court.

But this legislation and other proposals like it that seek to shield records from the public are less about journalism than they are about the government’s right to hide information.

If media outlets choose to exploit sensitive information without editorially sound reasons, then the public can judge them for that and they should expect a backlash. But that’s the viewer’s decision, not the government’s.

You might not like a particular news outlet or journalist, but there are thousands of them – most of whom try to operate under a code of principles.

Ask yourself whether you trust all Illinois government agencies more than any journalist or member of the public before considering whether exempting 911 calls from the Freedom of Information Act or any entire category of information is a good idea.

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