Luge accident coverage raises ethical dilemma

Whistler Sliding Center at Night

A turn at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Athletes describe the turns on this course as "scary." (Photo credit: Vanoc/Covan, via BC Living Games Guide Photos/Flickr/CC-A)

The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the opening day of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was a tragedy.  But its coverage by media outlets raises ethical questions every journalist should consider.  ABC, NBC and CBS all broadcast footage of the accident  In the unedited footage, Kumaritashvili can be seen losing control of his luge, hurtling over the wall and then slamming into a steel support beam.

Why broadcast this?

Certainly there are enough people who don’t want to see it.

“Glad I haven’t seen the replay of the luge accident. Seeing the space shuttle Challenger explode 500 times was enough,” wrote user Otoolefan on Twitter.

And yet, there’s certainly a lot of people who do.  Typing “video” into Google, as Twitter user thecalebbacon pointed out, will suggest “video of luge crash.”

“When did Google turn into a goth?” he wrote. “I bet it shops at Hot Topic.”

As of this moment, there’s no definitive word from any of the networks on what went into their decision to air the footage. That’s too bad, since in the absence of any explanation from the networks, many will assume the decision was based on a desire to draw ratings.  In the words of the speaker in Don Henley’s 1982 song “Dirty Laundry“:

We got the bubbleheaded bleach-blonde, comes on at 5
She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry…
Kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down
Kick ‘em when they’re stiff, kick ‘em all around

In reality, ethical journalists carefully balance the need to tell the story clearly against the need for sensitivity when dealing with graphic footage. Written ethics code, such as that of the Society for Professional Journalists, help journalists make these decisions.  That code also points out that journalists ought to “Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.”  Failing to do so leads to misconceptions over the decisions.

So hypothetically, what happened in the newsrooms of the networks when the footage came down the line?  While I doubt there were many formal conversations, I suspect a few factors went into the decision.

Journalists need to report the news in a way that allows audiences to make their own decisions.  Kumaritashvili’s death, while tragic and graphic, is newsworthy because of the context of his death, its timeliness.

But that doesn’t explain the showing of the footage.  What does explain it are the questions surrounding the safety of the track at Whistler.  The track was already known as the fastest in the world, with difficult turns requiring extreme focus.  According to csmonitor.com, athletes refer to Turn 13 as the “50-50″ — meaning you’ve only got a 50 percent chance of getting through it without crashing.

Flexible Flyer picture

These classic "Flexible Flyer" sleds are not what a luge looks like. (kjarret/Flickr/CC-A)

Furthermore, luge is, let’s face it, not one of the most well-known sports in the U.S. media market.  Try to explain luge without images and you risk people thinking it’s like taking the old Flexible Flyer down the hill.

About the only way of conveying the danger of the course to viewers is through video.  And in this case, the most appropriate video was the video of Kumaritashvili’s crash.

This doesn’t mean they liked showing it, nor that they weren’t aware of the controversy it might cause. On NBC, anchor Brian Williams made a point of repeating several times that “these images…are very difficult to watch.”

Now the story’s been told, NBC, at least, tacitly acknowledged there was no more need to replay the footage.  NYTimes.com reported last night that NBC had decided to “shelve the footage.”  I suspect they also figure that dwelling on the story may conflict with the happy-happy-joy-joy emotional roller coaster that is NBC’s Olympics coverage.  They’re already going to lose about $200 million on these games.  Why bring everyone down?

I hope that at some point, the producers and executives who decided to air the raw footage go on the record about why they made the decisions they did.  Failing to do so is a disservice to journalism in general, not to mention the family of Kumaritashvili.

Updates and recommended reading:

Not that I’m sitting back and watching the page view stats, but I’m fascinated by the number of viewers coming to this page via the search terms “luge accident footage.”  I wonder if they found what they were looking for.

About these ads

2 thoughts on “Luge accident coverage raises ethical dilemma

  1. I saw the video of the crash and it was indeed hard to watch. I think the most horrific part is that the luge was clearly not built properly in the first place. The walls were much too low for that turn and should not have been lowered until further down the track. I don’t see a problem with showing the video, as this is the only way for the public to see how it really happened and that the track was a problem. Otherwise how could we know for sure?

    • Good point. I think a lot of the people who have been the loudest in their criticism of the media for showing the video have missed the key point — that this wasn’t some random schmoe who happens to die while the cameras are rolling. This was an Olympic athlete who died at the opening of the games on a track that had already earned a reputation as a fast and dangerous track. That makes it news, and makes some use of the video almost obligatory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s