Use of tragic luge video draws fire

NBC said callers complained and Twitter was aflame with disgust

Published February 14, 2010 3:42AM (EST)

NBC and other networks were criticized Saturday for broadcasting the disturbing video of a Georgian luger who died after flying off the track and slamming into a steel beam during an Olympic training run.

NBC said callers complained and Twitter was aflame with disgust. Much of the criticism centered on the network showing the footage at the beginning of its coverage of Friday's opening ceremony for the Vancouver Games, even though video of Nodar Kumaritashvili's death aired on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs.

News organizations frequently weigh the imperative of depicting the reality of the world they cover with concerns about whether images would be too disturbing for the public. In this case, the networks warned viewers and used the video. NBC, in a departure from its usual policy of holding onto video because it is the U.S. Olympics rightsholder, let other networks use it.

"We owe folks a warning here," NBC News anchor Brian Williams said at the beginning of his network's coverage of the opening ceremony Friday. "These pictures are very tough for some people to watch."

Similar warnings were offered by Diane Sawyer and Maggie Rodriguez on the ABC and CBS newscasts. On the "CBS Evening News," the video was shown three times --the last in slow motion. Although NBC muffled the sound of the accident, elsewhere the thudding clank of Kumaritashvili hitting the steel beam was audible.

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.

"I hope that young man's family and friends and countrymen and women and children survive the trauma that you chose to expose them to," Hartman wrote. "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."

The story "could have been told perfectly accurately and well without NBC's 'Faces of Death' moment," blogger Dana Pico wrote.

An NBC executive involved in the decision was not immediately available for comment.

The decisions to air the video, which also appeared on NBC's Olympics Web site and elsewhere online, were interesting in the context of caution elsewhere. Many TV networks, for instance, did not show images of people jumping from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Journalists have been criticized by some for not conveying the realities of America's two wars. It became an issue last fall, for example, when The Associated Press distributed a still picture of a mortally wounded U.S. Marine in an Afghanistan battlefield and was criticized for it by the U.S. defense secretary.

Bob Steele, an expert on media ethics at DePauw University, said Saturday he hoped the networks gave careful thought to their decisions.

"Clearly it was a failure if they just said, 'Wow, look at that, let's put it up.' Or 'the other networks are using it, let's put it up,'" Steele said.

He 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.

By David Bauder

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