Facts and fiction are on everyone’s lips as the headlines multiply about the tragic death of 21-year-old Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili from Georgia. This horrible tragedy is unique, however, in the fact that available to the public there are not only photos, rumors and quotes from grieving loved ones, but an actual video of the young athlete’s death.
NBC Nightly News showed this video multiple times before they decided to take it off the air. The video has been pulled from all media outlets, including YouTube, but the damage it created is done.
Such an event brings to the forefront the question of journalistic ethics. Simply because the information, photo or video is obtained does not necessarily mean it should be publicized.
The public certainly has the right to know about the death of the athlete. There is no way to keep that information hidden with the millions of spectators. But a slow motion video of the young man’s last moments is an unnecessary horror.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the media should “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” They should also “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” NBC seems to have temporarily forgotten these guidelines.
Over the summer, a similar dilemma surrounded another 21-year-old, Lance Corpora Joshua Bernard, a marine fighting in Afghanistan. An Associated Press photographer snapped a photo of the soldier as he was lying, fatally wounded, in the mud. He died soon after the photo was taken. Many newspapers worldwide published the photo on their front pages, including Fredericksburg’s local paper, the Free Lance-Star.
There was an uproar of negative response to the photo from the public, Bernard’s family and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who responded by saying, “Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling.”
However, the fact that these publication decisions attracted negative criticism is not the issue at hand. The media is ever on display to play victim to all who want to respond to and criticize it.
The issue itself comes down to the presence of common sense, and to echo the Code of Ethics, “compassion.”
The public has a right to pertinent and up-to-date news, and not all of it will be pretty. However, when breaking the story, there is always a line that should never be crossed, and in today’s age of technology and coverage mania, it is easy to choose to display more footage than is appropriate.
Today’s media is now in a position that it has never before had to fill—not how to get the footage or photo, but whether or not to use it.