“Hard to Watch” Video: Responsible or Not?

Over at the Huntington Post, Jason Linkins praises the edict of NBC News chief Steve Capus to curb network Olympic coverage use of the video showing Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge run. “I’m glad this decision has been reached,” Linkins writes. “The video of Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge run is difficult to watch and I do not recommend that you do so. …Here’s hoping Steve Capus will remember having made this choice come September and break with MSNBC’s grim and pointless tradition of replaying the events of September 11, 2001 in real time.”

Linkins presumably regards Capus’s decision as “responsible broadcasting.” My question is, “What’s responsible about it?” The video should be banned because Jason finds it “difficult to watch”? Don’t watch it, then. I don’t think it is possible to understand the accident without seeing the video, and responsible broadcast journalism involves using the available information technology to clarify whatever is being discussed. The accident itself is less frightening to watch than the hapless skier whose violent tumble used to begin ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Is the luge accident inappropriate to show because the luge athlete died and the “agony of defeat” skier did not? What standard is that, exactly…the “unethical to show it if people died” standard?

No, it can’t be that. Nobody seems to blanch at showing the film of the Hindenburg going down, or the atom bomb being exploding over Hiroshima, as these film records help tell important historical stories. Yet Linkins says showing the 9-11 video is “pointless.” All right, maybe the proposed rule is “Don’t engage in repeated showings of video of recent events that result in the death of one or more people.” But again, why? What is ethically wrong with it?

Is it unkind to the people involved, or their families? That has never been a journalistic standard when real news is involved, nor should it be. Is it too  upsetting for the audience? As a Red Sox fan, I can tell you that watching the ball roll through Bill Buckner’s legs over and over gave me more psychic pain that the video of many objectively worse tragedies. Mets fans find the film positively edifying, so they watch it, and I don’t. Is the luge accident too graphic or bloody? The 9-11 footage isn’t either graphic or bloody, and Kumaritashvili’s death is G-Rated compared to, for example,  the gory Zapruder film of JKF’s assassination. Gory, but essential: it is impossible to understand the assassination without seeing the film. Would Capus ban that too? What else isn’t NBC showing us?

If Linkens’ only wants to be sure that videos of tragedies get shown when there is a legitimate news, historical or educational purpose, I’m with him all the way. Banning a video because it’s “hard to watch,” however, is a form of voluntary censorship, by people—network executives—that we have good reason not to trust. Maybe Capus’s decision has nothing to do with his audience’s sensitivities, and everything to do with misrepresenting the Games as safe family fare, when in fact serious injury and death is always a real possibility. I wouldn’t rule it out.

I think responsible journalism must err on the side of showing too much, rather than too little.  That means that Kumaritashvili’s tragic death, the planes hitting the Twin Towers, Zapruder’s movie, “Oh, the humanity!” and yes, Mookie’s damn grounder should be shown on TV any time they are relevant.

No matter how hard they are to watch.

5 thoughts on ““Hard to Watch” Video: Responsible or Not?

  1. Spot on again. I like the idea of halting the video of the luger’s fatal accident at this point for 3 reasons:

    1) We’ve seen it. Playing it over and over non-stop won’t change anything now.

    2) You don’t want to seem like you’re uncreative and you’re just turning a profit from his death.

    3) It’s not in the context of safety if you’re showing it before and after figure skating. It’s on topic during the luge event, but that’s over now. People are now tuning in to watch the Olympics, not a highlight film of one guy’s death. Let’s leave the replays for another venue and it has a purpose.

    • I agree with all of these, actually. (But I haven’t see it!)
      I think it’s a little more relevant than just the Luge, however. In all likelihood, it will be the one thing everyone remembers about the 2010 Games.

  2. Really. We see the 30-car pile-ups over and over again. The twin towers get hit thousands of times on film. Haiti victims countless times, patiently waiting for their amputations. Horrid reality shows with Anna Nicole Smith killing herself slowly. EMTs rescuing burn victims from conflagrations of various kinds. Iraqi and Afghanistani battles over and over again, with both soldiers and civilians dying left and right.

    NOW suddenly the media has become noble because they won’t show one presumptive Olympian dying in a luge accident? Upsetting yes, but why was this line drawn? YouTube and other web sites provide the salacious with plenty of gore to watch. So do the CSI television shows. And so do CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. Some are real, some are not. To select out this one tragedy is somehow surreal, when the networks go out of their way at all other times to show us as much blood, gore, and upset as possible.

    ‘Tis a puzzlement. Not an honorable act. Just a puzzlement. And anyone who can figure it out would do a service to all who are dependent on the media for information.

  3. There is one case where I disagree: The Virginia Tech shooter left behind a video, and in it he made it clear that one of his reasons for committing the shooting was so that the news media would play his video and the world would hear what he had to say (which was mostly–if you can believe it–a bunch of immature ranting).

    And the media played it anyway, ignoring the fact that they were ensuring* that future troubled kids with something they want to say to the world need only shoot up some public place the same way and they’ll get their wish, too.

    –Dwayne

    * That one was for Tim! 🙂

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