Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airing of Graphic Material

So in class I specifically looked at the video (and case) of the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Winter Olympics and the ethics of TV stations airing and posting the video of his death.

At the time, Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th out of 65 luge competitors in the 2009-2010 World Cup season. His father, David Kumaritashvili, is a veteran luger who previously won a USSR Youth Championship (when Georgia was still part of Russia). His father’s cousin, Felix Kumaritashvili, is the head of the Georgian Luge Federation. Nodar was also related to Aleko Kumaritashvili, the founder of organized sledding sports in Georgia. As you can see, Nodar came from a long family history of luge competitors and influencers.

The incident itself was the fourth time an athlete has died during the Winter Olympic preparations and Kumaritashvili is the 6th athlete to die at either Olympics. Officials say that the death was the first luge fatality since 1975.

The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, said in a news conference following the accident that officials should have listened more carefully to athletes’ concerns about the safety of the track. “I don’t claim to know all the technical details,” he said. “But one thing I know for sure, that no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death. No sports mistake is supposed to be fatal."

Tony Benshoof of the United States was the first slider down the hill following Kumaritashvili’s death. He was adamant that the nature of the sport is very risky and said: “Luge is a tough sport. It takes a long time to master. That’s the bottom line. We could hash over it for hours. But at the end of the day, we’re going 95-98 miles an hour and we’re six inches off the ice. We get down a mile of track in 45 seconds. There’s an inherent risk.”

There’s been a lot of debate following the death on whether it was the dangerous track or the luger’s lack of experience that led to his death.

Whether or not the accident should be blamed on the athlete or the track will continue to be debated with no exact answer. What I would like to examine now however is the ethics of the coverage if this tragedy.

In the hours and days following Kumaritashvili’s death, all of the major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) aired the video captured of the luger losing control, leaving the track and striking a metal pillar. The graphic footage of the death naturally was all over the Internet before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally stepped in to claim copyright infringement and take it down. It’s still easy to find the footage, but Google agreed to remove it from YouTube and they’ve blocked it from showing up in searches.

Obviously the footage is very heart-wrenching and offensive to certain people, specifically friends and family of Kumaritashvili. His father will not view the video. Nino Licheli, a student from Kumaritashvili’s hometown, told reporters: "It was horrible to watch his death on television, this is such a tragedy. Our whole family was crying when we watched what happened."

News outlets will claim that the footage is simply part of the story and that newsworthiness of the story warrants the accompanied video when telling the story. Media claim that the “need to inform” outweighed their need to minimize harm and show compassion. However, many people are disgusted and offended by the media’s immediate reaction to show the footage without hesitation.

In my opinion, the video is completely unnecessary and tasteless to show on television. The IOC was correct (albeit a little slow) to request that the footage be removed from the Internet. The story can be told, and is still tragic and headline-worthy, without publicly airing the athlete’s final moments of life. The video adds nothing to the story factually and is simply used for “shock and awe” purposes. I would have run the story without the video in respect to the luger’s friends and family and anyone else upset by the footage.

  • Would you have aired it? Why or why not?
  • Was it necessary to show to tell the story?

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