The Ethics of "Always on Camera": Olympic Luger's Death Creates Dilemma for Journalists
When Nodar Kumaritashvili met his tragic end last week on the luge track at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the world lost a great athlete, and NBC faced the dilemma of whether or not to show the graphic video and still images. The fact that it's a common dilemma doesn't make it any easier.
Kumaritashvili, a member of the Georgian luge team, died Feb. 12 when his sled jumped the track and he slammed into an unpadded pillar. He was 21 years old. NBC and other stations aired video footage and still images of the accident and the failed resuscitation events. Reportedly, NBC president Steve Capus finally issued an order forbidding broadcast of the images without his permission.
For some viewers, it was still too much. Journalism student Hillary Duff said, "[T]he distribution of this video is extremely disrespectful in every way for Kumaritashvili’s memory and his family."
Yahoo! sports blogger Chris Chase had generally high marks for NBC's coverage, although he was critical of their decision to air a video of Kumaritashvili that began with an extended shot of him standing in the gate before his run, showing the accident in slow motion and receiving CPR to no avail. "Other than the initial airing of the video, everything else seemed gratuitous," Chase said.
Just over half (55 percent) of the respondents to an online poll sponsored by MSNBC said that the video should not have aired out of respect for Kumaritashvili's loved ones. In an accompanying story, journalism ethics expert Bob Steele wondered whether the editorial decisions might have have been different had Kumaritashvili been American.
No one can answer that question, but it's not unusual for editors to be forced to make judgments about using graphic images with a news story. Conventions emerge, such as the general rule that you should keep a respectful distance when photographing a dead body. The National Press Photographers' Association code of ethics can provide some guidance. It includes this clause:
"Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see."
What constitutes an "overriding and justifiable need?" Here's a classic example that many of us have used in media ethics class. In 1976, Stanley J. Forman captured images of a young woman and a child falling through a fire escape in Boston. The young woman died, but she broke the child's fall, and the child survived. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography, and the outrage over the photos prompted an effort to repair fire escapes across the city, possibly saving lives. You can see one of the images here.
Could there have been any other socially redeeming purpose in airing the images of Kumaritashvili's last moments? Lugers had reportedly been complaining about this particular track, but it took Kumaritashvili's accident to prompt safety modifications. Did the widespread distribution of the images play a role in forcing that to happen? There's no evidence of that, as far as I'm aware.
The Vancouver Sun, a local newspaper in the town where the Winter Games are being held, chose not to air the images, according to a news report. That report captured some of the debate over the images on Twitter. In that story, journalism professor Alfred Hermida noted the rapidity with which the video spread across the Internet:
"The fact is it was almost instantly broadcast online," said Hermida. "Before we had a media system where everything was filtered through journalists, but that doesn't happen anymore. It transfers the responsibility to us to decide whether to watch this video or not."
I made a conscious effort to avoid this video. How about you?