A FAKE IN THE LIFEFOR DRAMA'S SAKE, NPR NEWS EMBELLISHES A PHOENIX POLICE DISPATCHER'S WORKDAY
"It's a new day," Phoenix Police Department 911 operator Tracy Lorenzano tells millions of people listening to National Public Radio's popular, magazine-style news show, All Things Considered.
In a five-minute piece that aired last month, Lorenzano is giving a day-in-the-life account of an emergency police dispatcher's work in the Valley of the Sun. First, she describes walking down a narrow corridor, through a secured entrance and into the police department's dingy basement communication center, where operators take emergency phone calls and make instant decisions that can save--or lose--a life.
"It's 0800 hours," she says. "I take a deep breath, say a little prayer and hope that I don't make any mistakes that might get me on the six o'clock news."
And what a day it was. Tapes of callers describing shootings, beatings and accidents spice Lorenzano's story. And this day on the job ends dramatically--in fact, tragically. Two Phoenix police officers are killed in a head-on auto wreck.
It's a compelling account of a day at work as a 911 operator.
But it never happened. At least, not the way NPR described it.
The events broadcast by NPR and Lorenzano actually did not take place during one shift. Or even one day.
In fact, those events occurred over a five-year time frame. The two police officers were killed in July 1990. The rest of the taped 911 calls were culled from different days during the last three months--almost five years later.
"That could be a very typical day," Lorenzano says of the day depicted in the radio broadcast, but then acknowledges that it "wasn't the day of the death of the officers."
"We changed it a little bit because we couldn't come up with certain tapes," Lorenzano, 34, says. "What kind of problem does this create?"
Lorenzano might be excused for failing to grasp the difference between a news broadcast and a dramatic creation. She's not a journalist. She's studying to become a nurse at Glendale Community College. She works at the police department to cover her bills.
She never dreamed a college essay written two years ago would end up on a national news radio program. But it did.
The essay was her first for an English 101 class. It described her workday as a 911 emergency operator on July 26, 1990--the day sergeants Danny Tenney and John Domblisky were killed in a car accident at Seventh Street, just south of the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs. She got an A.
Her mother thought the essay so interesting that she mailed it unsolicited to Newsweek's "My Turn" column in September 1993. Newsweek published the essay in June 1994 under the headline "Holding the 911 Line" and paid Lorenzano $1,000.
The Newsweek column caught the attention of a freelance Maryland radio producer named Dan Collison. Lorenzano says Collison called her a couple of months ago and asked if she would be interested in doing the story for National Public Radio.
Lorenzano agreed. But there was a problem. The audio tapes of the calls she described in the Newsweek story were long gone. But new tapes of 911 calls were easy to come by. Lorenzano says she receives about 200 calls a day, and the department saves tapes of all calls for 90 days.
Lorenzano gathered tapes of "typical" calls, and, she says, Collison prepared a script. Lorenzano read the script at the KJZZ radio studio in Mesa; the producer edited the piece and sold it to National Public Radio.
While Lorenzano may not understand journalism's ethical precepts, Collison and National Public Radio certainly know it is wrong to create a day-in-the-life story from events occurring over several years.
Arizona State University broadcasting Professor Donald Godfrey says the network shouldn't have allowed the story to be broadcast without telling listeners it was a compilation of events.
"Traditionally, that wouldn't have been allowed," he says. "A news director would have basically eliminated that because it's not quite true; it's misleading."
But, Godfrey notes, tradition has little to do with journalism today, as the lines between factual news accounts, docudramas and tabloid sensationalism blur.
NPR executive editor John Dingus says the network "made a mistake" broadcasting the day-in-the-life story without telling listeners that the events it described spanned a period of years.
"We don't do anything that could be interpreted as staging," Dingus says. "If we present something as happening in one day, then all of the things presented in that piece should have, in fact, happened in that one day."
But Collison, the freelance producer of the 911 segment, doesn't share Dingus' view. Collison says he doesn't have any problem with compressing the events taken over five years into one day, saying, "I don't see why that should be such a problem."
Lorenzano's 911 story was not just a re-creation. It was a re-creation complicated by reality.
At one point during the broadcast, Lorenzano makes reference to her husband, whom, she fears, may be one of the detectives killed in the car crash. Lorenzano was married in 1990 when the fatal accident occurred, but she had been divorced from the officer by the time the broadcast was taped this year.
And, finally, Lorenzano's depiction of receiving 911 phone calls on the day of the officers' deaths doesn't appear to ring true.
Lorenzano initially said she began work as a 911 operator in July 1990; at that time, she contended the accident that killed the two officers occurred in 1991 or 1992.
But after New Times confirmed the date of the accident as July 26, 1990, Lorenzano said she may have begun her five-week training period to become a 911 operator in June 1990.
"That is really bizarre," she says when informed of the date of the fatal accident. "Unless I started in June. We are in training for like five weeks, unless I was just, like, answering calls during that time. You don't even answer calls before you're out of training. And you're in training for five weeks before you get out on the floor."
City of Phoenix records show Lorenzano was hired as a communications operator on July 23, 1990--three days before the fatal crash. On the day of the accident that killed the two officers, it seems Lorenzano was a dispatcher trainee. She may have been listening to other operators field emergency calls, but she could not have been fielding them herself, police spokesman Mike Torres says.
"She was not certified to go solo," Torres says.
Such details fail to impress Collison.
"Why is that such a big deal?" the news producer replies when informed that Lorenzano wasn't really taking 911 calls the day the officers died. "It's just a technicality.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.