Yesterday marked the first day of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It was supposed to be a day of joy, excitement, and celebration. Instead, it was marred by the unfortunate death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. At just 21, Kumaritashvili wasn’t as experienced a luger as some of his competitors. He lost control of his sled, and slammed into a steel pole. Though crews tried to resuscitate him, Kumaritashvili died.
The International Olympic Committee has very strict rules about how video and images can be used. In our newsroom, we got a very explicit email regarding such rules. But the video and images exist; and as is typical these days, they can be easily retrieved legally and illegally.
Here in the US, most of the Olympic coverage you will see is on NBC, the network that bought the rights to air the Olympics. Elsewhere, you will generally see still images. But the luger’s death was caught on video, and every network had a copy of it. Last night, just hours before the Opening Ceremonies, all three networks, NBC, ABC and CBS decided to air that video. They each gave warnings before the video rolled, cautioning viewers that the video was traumatic. But still thousands, even millions, of people saw it.
The reaction was immediate. NBC received phone calls, Twitter was full of comments, and people could be heard asking each other, “Did you see the video?” In my newsroom, our news director decided not to use the video during the half hour special Olympic Zone show airing just before the Opening Ceremonies. However, we do not have any control over what NBC does. And just minutes after our show ended, we once again saw the image of Nodar Kumaritashvili dying.
I asked on my Twitter and Facebook pages whether people found this appropriate. “Distasteful,” wrote Litho Ruksznis. “It was gratuitous,” wrote John Olore. But then Suzanne Spruce wrote, “It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. I would have more of a problem if resuscitation efforts were aired repeatedly.” And Stephen Cannon, Jr wrote, “Why hide from the truth?”
Clearly there are arguments for both sides. “It’s part of the story.” “Think of his family.” Every time something tragic happens, and a newsroom has video or images of it, those questions are — or should be — asked. Conversation is good. At no time will everyone be happy, but to do the least amount of harm while telling the story is our goal.
Also, a note from Associated Content:
Google pulled the luge crash video Friday from YouTube after receiving a request from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Since the footage is copyrighted material and subject to broadcast approval from NBC and the IOC, Google complied, blocking all videos of the crash on their site, which, in turn, also blocked any that were embedded on a host of other sites.
At 7:12 p.m. EST, NBC Nightly News sent out a message on Twitter reading: Nightly News will no longer be using video of the luge crash.