In the wake of January’s tragic earthquake in Haiti, iMediaEthics covered the debate over the media’s use of graphic images from the disaster.
Now, with February’s winter Olympics in full swing, another issue of graphic representation–a video of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s deadly crash–has raised some of the same ethical questions: Would networks have been as eager to show the video had Kumaritashvili been an American athlete?
In a practice run, Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled and was thrown into a steel support beam. NBC chose to air the video during the beginning of its coverage of Friday’s Olympics opening ceremony. It also shared the video with other networks, including ABC, CBS and NBC, according to the Associated Press. David Bauder, AP, aptly compared the decision facing networks airing the fatal luge run video with previous cases where media refused to air graphic images of “a mortally wounded U.S. Marine” or “people jumping from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.”
As we discussed in our Haiti story, the decision to publish a graphic image or video rests in the balance of two competing ethical responsibilities: 1) to convey the truth of the situation you are reporting and to try to help your audience to understand the magnitude of the event, and 2) to prevent harm to your subjects and your viewers.
Michael Hiestand at USA Today refers to the dilemma : “If NBC ignored the footage of the fatal crash, it would look like the network was covering up for a sports event it paid so dearly to cover. If it aired the footage too often, it could come across ghoulish hype.”
Distance can play a role in this decision, some questioned the graphic Haiti images, wondering if papers would have printed the same photos if the quake occurred in the United States. Journalism ethics expert Bob Steele, quoted by the Associated Press, says the same distance may have played a part in this Olympics tragedy.
The AP writes,
[Steele] was also concerned that distance was a factor: a TV network might be more willing to air such a video with the victim from the republic of Georgia, and less so if an American had been killed.
According to SportsBusiness Daily, NBC decided Saturday to stop airing the footage of Kumaritashvili’s crash. Did viewer compliants have an effect? After all, AP reports that callers were complaining to NBC and “Twitter was aflame with disgust.”
The New York Times writes, “When Bob Costas introduced a report on the changes made to the luge track — intended to make it safer and slower — he said that NBC would not play the video of Kumaritashvili’s accident for the rest of the Olympics… NBC apparently believed it had received all the news value it could from using the footage, and thought there was no need to upset viewers further by replaying it before it began broadcasting the day’s luge competition.”
However, many media viewers were still disturbed by the video.
AP reports even the warnings “weren’t enough for Matthew T. Sussman, sports editor of Blogcritics Magazine, who wrote, ‘so it’s anyone’s fault for feeling nauseous or traumatized by what they saw. And it really is a terrible clip.’ Kim Hartman, a freelance writer from Charleston, W.Va., wrote on a CNN posting that NBC should be ashamed for airing it at the opening of the Olympics.”
AP quotes Hartman as stating, “You have ruined my games by embedding that image into my mind as the first thing I will recall and perhaps the only thing I will recall that occurred in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympic Games. ”
But SportsBusiness Daily points out that others supported NBC’s decision, like Tom Jones at Tampabay.com who argued the footage was “more newsworthy than gratuitous, as it showed viewers how the accident occurred and gave viewers a sense of what went wrong.”