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Should Video Have Been Used in Olympics Tragedy?

There is a section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that deals with “Minimize Harm”. In this section, journalists can find suggestions to minimize the impact of certain types of coverage on the general public.

The reason for guidelines like this (I knew that Media Ethics course would come in handy) is to minimize harm that may be caused as a result of reporting news – such as protecting victims of crimes or minors, but also the use of compassion and sensitivity when dealing with certain subject matter.

It’s this section of The SPJ Code of Ethics that left me questioning the recent coverage of Nodar Kumaritashvili’s tragic death during a training run on The Whistler Track at the Winter Olympics this past Friday.

While the reporting of the event was handled with compassion, and viewers were warned of the graphic nature of the video they were about to see, I seriously question the use of the video footage as part of the reporting.

For starters, the footage clearly depicted the death of the 21 year old Georgian athlete as he flew off the track and collided into a steel beam on the side of the course. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever seeing somebody die on the evening news. While rescue crews rushed to save the injured athlete, there was no question from the footage that he had in fact died in the accident.

This incident raises bigger questions for me regarding the use of the SPJ Code of Ethics in journalism today. It’s relatively easy to think of more than a few examples of news stories that violate each line in The Code.

The SPJ Code of Ethics exists to guide ethical decision making in journalism. There are no laws to enforce The Code, and I don’t think there should be (that whole 1st Amendment thing), but they should still be used by journalists.

I can’t help but think of the friends, family and fellow Georgians that watched that footage on the evening news – some may have learned the news first from the coverage. While the Opening Ceremonies were dedicated to the Kumaritashvili, I think the use of this footage took away from the tribute.

There is no right or wrong way to report the news. It’s my position that the footage shouldn’t have been used. If I were a journalist deciding whether or not to use the footage, I would have opted to not use it based on these suggestions in the “Minimize Harm” section of The Code:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief
  • Show good taste – avoid pandering to lurid curiosity

I’m paraphrasing a few of these guidelines, but you get the idea. I think this is an example of ratings over ethics. I think the story could have been reported without the use of the footage.

If there’s another thing I remember about my Media Ethics class, it’s everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What do you think?

(Image Credit: CBS News, Tradgedy at the Olympics Photos)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

  • Micah

    Two events come to mind. One is the 1987 suicide of Bud Dwyer. It was broadcast live, but then also re-broadcast by some stations. I remember because it was a snow day and while I was out sledding a friend told me he’d just seen Bud Dwyer shoot himself. Most stations decided to not show the actual shooting and only played the audio of the event.

    The second event is 9/11. There were requests to stop showing the impact of the planes and the towers collapsing since people were dying in those scenes – although not clearly visible.

    When media have footage like this, they must make a decision that will possibly lead to fewer viewers. Clearly many people will want to see the footage of almost any tragedy and with all of the options out there, someone will have it. Those outlets will get the eyeballs, but at some point a journalist must decide if ethics dictate a different course.

    Unfortunately the line is pretty gray. Most would say showing Bud Dwyer was inappropriate, but what about 9/11 or a plane crashing at an air show? The ethical line will be different for each event and outlet.

  • Elissa Freeman

    This one is a tough call. Morally, one could argue the footage should not have been shown. However, morals don’t play well when it comes to ratings. I was actually in a Canadian newsroom where the raw footage came through on the feed; but when they cut the item to be part of their 24-hour news wheel, the actual accident was edited out. BUT when it came to the highly rated 11 p.m. news, the footage was back in with a verbal disclaimer.

  • Toni

    Excellent discussion. I did not have a warning when I flicked on television at 5.30p.m. I was not expecting to see a young man die on my screen, and I don’t see that I benefited from the image of his bloodied face. On the contrary, I feel harmed! I feel distressed for his family and friends that his dying moments are forever available to us. The greater good wasn’t served in this instance – but it no doubt enhanced ratings.

  • http://wwww.hiddensoy.com Dianne

    I thought they should not have run the video. I found the still image of the video on the screen would have been enough. It sure would have been nice if every station ran a video clip of the tribute to him at the opening ceremony.

  • http://twitter.com/esjWBRU ESJ

    Excellent comments, all. I sought out the video footage of the incident, and while I found it awful and distressing to actually see someone die, my reaction wasn’t far removed from when I hear about a suicide bomb attack in Kabul. Tragedy is a part of our lives, and consequently a part of the news. Although I can completely understand an editor/producer deciding not to show this terrible footage, to me it seems to be a judgment call. If you know your audience, you hopefully know if they can handle something like this – and that should be the deciding factor in whether you show death or merely describe it.

  • TheKm

    It’s an interesting question. In journalism, I’ve always believed in first asking the question: does this truly benefit the reader/viewer?

    In this case, I don’t see that any average (meaning anyone not an Olympic participant, family member or investigator of the incident) viewer would benefit from footage showing the actual death. The story and facts do not become significantly enhanced by the raw video. In this instance, I think the NY Times (or any similar) presentation – which showed stills up to the point of death that explained the process by which the accident occurred – was the most appropriate method of telling the story.

    In certain instances, like the aforementioned Bud Dwyer suicide (which I too watched live, as a child) you come upon circumstance where the specifics and manner of the death are so integral and necessary to the narrative as to warrant publication. That was sudden, and in the middle of purposely public address. The “shock factor” was part of the act and therefore part of the story. But this is not the most common situation.

    In all circumstances, I still firmly believe that the only pertinent question is: does this truly benefit the reader/viewer? If those who publish it can make a solid, rational argument on that question to support their actions, then I would not think them unethical, whatever personal opinions I might have.

  • Kim Sloan

    I think that the video was graphic by nature, crude and unmerciful to those grieving the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili. Just to point out, those grieving were not just his loved ones and teammates but all olympic competitors and nations participating in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It seems like today video is indispensable– just a click away on YouTube and with more and more exposure of the daily events of the lives of people where does the media exposure decide to draw the line? I believe that ethically the video should not have been shown and now because it was shown it gives precedence to any other horrifying video that can be captured with cell phones and video hand recorders.

    When I was shocked to watch the video on my television, I also thought it very unnecessary. The video did show the different discrepancies with the track’s barriers but nonetheless photos of the track would have sufficed for the report on the Georgia’s more novice luge competitor. In an interview with Kumaritashvili’s father he said he had not and would not ever watch the video of his son’s death, just like the public audience should not have seen it.