Is the media on a slippery ethical slope showing the fatal crash of Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili?

by Francis Wooby on February 18, 2010

Just as I’m feeling slimy for using a morbid pun in my post title, I wonder if folks at CTV and other news outlets are feeling any guilt over repeatedly showing Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s deadly crash.

Should they?

My thoughts on this were sparked by this post over at the Reflections in the Snow Covered Hills blog, belonging to my friend and communications colleague Megan. Among many interesting points it raised is this idea that modern news consumers can/should be given the choice of how much “gore,” for lack of a better term, they want in their stories—at least through online channels.

The internet has made it easy to level our news consumption. Once past the headlines, we can read only the basic facts, or drill way down into in-depth articles, related stories, and background pieces; all linked together with photos, audio and video clips.

I suppose it’s not a stretch to argue we should have the choice whether or not to read about, hear and/or view all of the available information, including any violent, gross or otherwise unsettling stuff which might exist. Theoretically, we can take only what we want and leave the rest.

Personally, I tend to side with the argument that most information should be freely accessible. Fundamentally, knowledge is power, and it is dangerous to censor it for the sake of  “protecting” ourselves or others.

So yes, I think there is something to be said for the idea of putting it all out there and letting us choose for ourselves what content we want.

Not in this case, though.

I also believe it is unethical to share sensational photos, videos, terms or any other information to hurt others and/or gain something for yourself. In the same vein, I think it is wrong to promote information that invades others’ privacy, and is of no real value to the public.

By showing the footage of the man crashing and sustaining fatal injuries, the media exposed what is really a private moment.What did it add to the story that can’t just be explained without showing the traumatic scene? Are there arguments for using the video that don’t involve boosting ratings?

I’m not saying the video should be destroyed and never seen again. Perhaps there is value for engineers and even athletes who build and use luge courses. They could examine the crash to see what went wrong and how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

However, in terms of widespread public viewing, I see no point besides network greed.

What’s your take?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle February 18, 2010 at 8:19 pm

I completely agree with you, Francis. To me, the showing (and reshowing) of that video was highly unprofessional and an attempt to gain viewers. The world was watching but that wasn’t what the world expected nor needed to see. I also thought the still shot that accompanied many articles was also in poor taste knowing the outcome of the accident.

A question I posed the evening of the opening ceremonies: do you think this video would have been broadcasted they way it was if it had been an American or Canadian athlete involved?

Gordon Cameron February 19, 2010 at 2:40 am

I made a conscious and a personal choice not to watch that video because I felt that I had no reason to watch that man die. However, I disagree with the idea that showing it on network TV (as well on on countless blogs) is completely devoid of value. Like it or not, someone dying during an Olympic training run at the Olympic venue just before the Olympics is news and as such it needs to be reported. Can you do this without showing the footage? Of course you can, but without it the viewer doesn’t get the whole story*. As a newsman it is my job to give my readers as complete a story as possible and sometimes it means giving them images (either visual or textual) that are disturbing. I agree that it should not be done gratuitously (Kumaritashvili becoming the new “Agony of Defeat” on Wide World of Sport’s intro would be crossing that line) nor without an appropriate disclaimer, but preventing it from being shown in the proper context and for the purpose of bringing the news to the masses isn’t really justified to me.

A simpler case can be made when it comes to “hard news” topics. Think of the impact of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning photograph (or the TV footage of the same incident) of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner. Here we saw a man deliberately killed and yet few would argue that humanity would have been better served the dead man’s last moments went unrecorded and undisseminated.

I do understand that there is a vast gulf between an intentional killing undertaken during a war and a sporting accident, but both coincided with major international news events, both took place in the view of the public and both either are, or may be destined to become, iconic images of those events that will shape public perception about these events for years to come.

I also have to disagree with you on the whole network greed idea. Structurally speaking ads during the Olympics were all bought up months ago so there would be no ability for salesmen to go out there and make money off of showing this video.

* I remember being shown a video in J-School of a performer falling to his death in front of a large crowd. In spite of the fact that camera paned all the way to the ground the shot was cut off before he hit. It was TV journalism at its best. The coverage wasn’t sensational. The voice was somber without being funereal. The visuals gave the viewer sufficient context as to what the performer was doing and showed the fall while leaving the potentially gory outcome to the viewer’s imagination. Having not seen the luger video I don’t know if that was possible in this particular case (certainly it would be more difficult for the viewer to understand went on here as very few of us understand the forces at play on a luge track, whereas we’ve all seen what happens when you drop something soft on the floor from a height).

Megan February 19, 2010 at 10:14 am

I’ve seen the same video of the performer. It was horrible, but effective without showing the death.

Deborah February 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm

The local CTV affiliate in Edmonton did not show the footage because of its graphic nature and, at the time, I was grateful for it. However, later that night the national CTV coverage did show it – with no warning that I can remember. Although I do think it’s an invasion of privacy and that we probably didn’t need to see his death I also understand that it’s a legitimate news story and that, as such, it was legitimate to show the images.

That said, I’m a tad disturbed by the fact that although the television news only showed the image for a relatively short period of time (i.e., while it was still current news) you can still watch the footage over and over and over on the internet. All access all the time now means that this accident has become someones entertainment.

Francis Wooby February 22, 2010 at 11:33 am

Hi Michelle,

I’ve seen that same question asked a few times since the incident. My suspicion is that no, the footage would not have been shown as much, or in its entirity if they dead athlete hailed from the United States, Canada or another “first world” nation.

Can I prove this? Of course not. But my feeling is that it would not be as easy to discuss the rational pro and con arguements, journalistic etchical questions and other theoretical things so reasonably and dispassionately.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: