By: Joe Strupp
The family of a Virginia man shot to death by police is suing the Richmond Times-Dispatch over its use of a 911 call the man made prior to his death. The plaintiffs contend that the Media General Inc. daily improperly used the tragedy to help improve activity on its Web site and sell papers.
“The problem we have is exploitation of the incident to promote visitors to the Times-Dispatch Web site,” said Richard Armstrong, an attorney representing the family of James A. Lewis. “We felt it was not news at that point and they made use of the story to make hits on their Web site.”
Lewis died last year after a confrontation with Richmond police at his girlfriend’s house on Oct. 21, when he fired several shots and was shot himself after ignoring police requests to surrender his gun. Shortly after the shooting, the Times-Dispatch submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a tape of the 911 call Lewis made during the incident.
On Jan. 20, editors placed a portion of the audio tape and a partial transcript on the paper’s Web site (http://www.timesdispatch.com) and published a partial transcript in the newspaper. The suit claims that making this information public three months after Lewis’ death, “when it was no longer ‘news,'” amounts to commercial exploitation of Lewis’ death.
Executive Editor William H. Millsaps Jr. said that the FOIA request was not granted until January, and the newspaper chose to use the tape because “it has the ring of authenticity. … It lets readers know what the 911 operator faces. What it’s like for a cop to go into that situation.”
The 911 call offers a chilling narrative of the tragedy, with Lewis telling the operator he doesn’t want to go on living and the operator pleading with him to surrender. It ends with police asking Lewis to put his gun down and, then, Lewis being shot.
The suit, filed Nov. 7 in Albemarle County Circuit Court, claims the paper acted “with reckless disregard for the emotional and mental toll [that] publication and use [of the 911 call] would take on the family.” It also argues that the 911 tape should not have been used because Lewis was not a public figure. The suit seeks $1 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages.
“No one is saying the Times-Dispatch didn’t have a right to write about it,” Armstrong said. “The problem comes when you take an individual’s likeness, story, and name, and exploit it.”
George Mahoney, an attorney for the Times-Dispatch, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
To Millsaps, the 911 call is as integral to the story as initial reports of the event: “It is a public record. We hope [the case] will be dismissed before it comes to trial.
If not, it could have a chilling effect on news gathering.”