Car In The Canal
From RTNDF: Newsroom Ethics (Fourth Edition)
In 2001, a woman named Karla Gutierrez was driving on the Florida Turnpike in Miami when her car ran off the road and into a canal. As her car began to sink, Karla called Miami-Dade County dispatch on her cell phone. She was confused about her location and gave the dispatcher several conflicting locations. The call lasted for three-and-a-half minutes as the dispatcher tried to keep Gutierrez calm, send help and pinpoint the sinking car. Gutierrez became frantic as the car sank, then the line went silent as she drowned. The car was located about 45 minutes after Gutierrez made the call. The story was big news. Florida Highway Patrol troopers took a copy of the 911 call to Gutierrez’ family so they could hear the recording before it was released to the media. At 4:40 p.m., the tape was released to the media just 20 minutes before the first evening newscasts.
WPLG-TV (ABC) promised the viewers they would air the 911 tape, then didn’t. In follow-up stories, they only aired the voice of the dispatcher but not Gutierrez’ voice. News Director Bill Pohovey said he made the decision right away not to air the tape, saying the station does not run 911 calls unless they advance the story; and does not air them for shock value.
WFOR-TV (CBS) started discussing their decision well before the tape was released. In the meantime, the Gutierrez family called the station and asked that the 911 tape not be aired. Station officials weighed the benefit to the viewers of airing the tape against the harm to the family. At 5 p.m., the reporter read transcripts of part of the conversation between Gutierrez and the dispatcher and told the audience they were respecting the family’s wishes not to air the tape. The next day, the family asked WFOR to air the tape so viewers could see the problems that contributed to Gutierrez’ death. The station edited out the last frantic moments, aired the tape and told the audience it was being played at the family’s request.
WTVJ-TV (NBC)decided not to air the 911 call. Station officials discussed the tape early in the day but waited until the audio was received to make a decision. Even though the station did not air the tape, Dateline NBC aired parts of the call 11 days later.
WSVN-TV (FOX) aired most of the 911 call at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., but cut it before Gutierrez became more frantic and drowned. The station waited until the tape was in hand to decide what to do and decided to run most of it. Station officials said the tape reflected the evidence of what actually happened during the call, compared to what officials said had happened. According to station officials, the family never asked them not to air the tape.
This video includes the following:
Raw Tape of 911 Call
After viewing the video in its entirety, use your decision memo guide to set up the problem, offer a solution, identify the dilemma, weight the alternatives and cite an ethical rationale in justifying your decision.