Celebrity 911: Should We Really Hear These Calls?
By Jo Piazza Posted Mar 17th 2010 07:37AM
Americans of a certain age were shocked and saddened by the untimely death of actor Corey Haim. As fans, we grow close to celebrities in our own way, and this superficial closeness breeds a hunger for as much information as possible about the tragic events that led up to Haim's death. But maybe there are some things we don't need to hear. Was it necessary for fans of Haim's work to listen to his distraught mother's phone call to 911, where she can be heard lamenting: "He's completely, completely gone"?
So where should the media draw the line when it comes to 911 calls that involve a celebrity? In the past few months, we've been privy to the final moments of Brittany Murphy's life, the aftermath of the marital dispute that led to Charlie Sheen's arrest and the discovery of heiress Casey Johnson's body, all through the airing of 911 tapes online and on-air.
While the tapes offer a first-hand account of these news stories, their dissemination raises some ethical questions over whether these very private and at times gut-wrenching moments should be made available to a mass audience.
"In many cases, a 911 tape can help clarify and paint a picture of what actually happened at a crime scene or accident. It's real drama caught on tape and sometimes the only record of a person's last moments alive," explains Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'The Insider.'
The majority of 911 calls are part of the public record, meaning journalists not only have access to them, but are allowed to broadcast or reprint their content in various media outlets, including print, online or on-air.
"Because emergency services are publicly-funded, their content is a matter of public interest. The public has the right to make sure the government services are doing their job," explains attorney Steve Mindel of Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein in Los Angeles. "You have a balancing of the needs of the public and their right to know with the privacy of the individuals on these tapes."
It is at the discretion of news outlets whether to air a 911 tape and how to protect the privacy of an individual. In cases where the 911 caller isn't famous, but the call contributes to a news story, such as a case where a 911 call leads to a criminal arrest, the caller's identity can be masked to give them a measure of protection. But when it comes to the emergency calls of the rich and famous, the celebrity's identity is central to the decision to disseminate.
"There are a lot of valid journalistic stories that are incredibly compelling when it comes to 911 calls. I think that there is a skill in making those decisions that gets lost when you have a celebrity involved," says Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a school and resource for professional journalists.
On January 8, the Los Angeles Fire Department released a 911 recording from Dec. 20 of Sharon Murphy, mother of late actress Brittany Murphy. Sharon had found her daughter collapsed on the bathroom floor of her Beverly Hills home.
On the eight-minute recording, a distraught Sharon Murphy can be heard sobbing and wailing as she relays the dispatcher's instructions for performing CPR to Murphy's husband, Simon Monjack.
"My daughter's passed out ... they're doing mouth to mouth ... please get here," Sharon Murphy said to the emergency dispatcher.
At one point, an anguished Sharon Murphy calls out to her daughter, "Brittany, please come back!"
"The issue is whether they should be posted online and played on TV with no questions asked," says HLN's 'Showbiz Tonight' executive producer Dave Levine. "The release of the tape of Brittany Murphy's mother calling 911 was a gut-wrenching and arguably insensitive invasion of privacy. However, it is up to each individual site and news show to exercise proper judgment."
'Showbiz Tonight' opted not to air the Brittany Murphy 911 call.
McBride says that the reason behind airing or printing the contents of any 911 call as a journalist should be to educate the public about how their funds are being used for emergency services. "I do think you have to be brutally honest with yourself as a journalist and ask, 'Would I run this 911 call if I took the celebrity out of the story?' ... I think that there is a danger in backing into the justification for running it. I think the way that you test your theory is to ask yourself whether, as a journalist, if you remove, say, Charlie Sheen from the equation, would you run the 911 call? There are dozens of domestic calls each day like that one."
With the Murphy, Sheen and Johnson recordings all coming in succession, in addition to the release of a 911 call from the night Tiger Woods crashed his SUV into a tree last November, it may seem like the recordings of celebrity incidents are now more likely to be released into the public's hands.
Levine says that isn't the case. There just happen to be more outlets for entertainment news these days than there have ever been before, and there is also an appetite for celebrity news in mainstream outlets.
"I don't think celebrity 911 tapes are more prevalent these days, it just seems that way because once they are released, the prevalence of so many celebrity-driven Web sites drive them front and center into the public's awareness of them," Levine says. "And there is definitely a public appetite for them because, for better or worse, they provide raw, unfiltered, unscripted drama that even the best scripted drama cannot match."
As a journalist, I have to admit that I have been sucked into covering many a salacious celebrity story and welcomed 911 as an additional source, but I think the media needs to step back and make some real decisions about what merits the progression of a story and what merely serves up a dose of deathsplotation.
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