NBC on thin ice for its lack of discretion

Perhaps it’s because so many students are from outside of Los Angeles, thinking wistfully of places where February means actual snow and not 80-degree days inexplicably bookended by rain, that the Winter Olympics have been so welcomed on campus.

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Unfortunately for many eager viewers crowded around their dorm neighbor’s coveted flat-screen, the first images they were affronted with Friday were not of the gathering crowd in Vancouver or Lindsey Vonn’s warm-up routine. They were the last moments in the life of Nodar Kumaritišvili, the 21-year-old Georgian luger who lost control of his sled during a training run and fatally catapulted into a metal beam.

NBC warned its viewers, before releasing the footage, that it would be hard to watch.

Still, that disclaimer did little to quell the rising tide of disgust and indignation that followed.

NBC did not only make the video of the crash public — which included graphic images of a battered Kumaritišvili receiving on-site CPR — but also repeated the exact moment of death, in slow motion, three times within the span of a few minutes.

Most unconscionable of all, NBC chose to air it at the very beginning of the opening ceremonies, before Kumaritišvili’s family had even been notified of the accident.

Viewers from across the globe are now castigating the network for making public a host of images that are extremely sensitive, both emotionally and ethically. And in a culture where we find immense entertainment in the freak accidents of others (Darwin Awards, anyone?), such an overwhelmingly negative response is a clear reflection of the grimness of the footage and the over-eagerness of our media to share it with the world.

As a nation, we love extreme sports. We are fascinated by speed, danger and the possibility of things going wrong.

But to broadcast the moment of a man’s death on national television is different. It crosses the line from entertaining to invasive, especially when the footage is coming from a news source, which could have arguably informed its viewers of the tragedy just as thoroughly using only selected portions of the video or a narrative describing what happened. Such voyeurism has made even accident-loving America uncomfortable.

“If [the victim] was me or someone I knew, I would never want it to be broadcast across the country,” said Mychal Bailey, a freshman majoring in fine arts. “It’s so insensitive that everyone gets to see his death at the same time that his family’s grieving.”

NBC, as the syndicated USA Olympics rights holder, certainly wasted no time spreading the footage. According to the Associated Press, NBC does not usually make a practice of releasing its Olympics coverage to other media outlets. Yet within a matter of hours, ABC, CBS and a host of other networks had suddenly been granted access to the video — NBC had sold it to them.

“We released the footage because this was a significant news event,” the network stated.

While the media has an obligation to keep its audience informed to the best of its ability, there are certain cases in which possession of unique footage does not necessarily justify using it.

Had the video been released for the sake of improving safety precautions, its use might have been substantiated.

Showing a man’s death to the nation, potentially even to the entire world, is not by definition unwarranted. Eddie Adams’ famous photograph of a Viet Cong officer being shot in the head point blank during the Tet Offensive (ironically, NBC was there to broadcast that death too) was a decisive factor in bringing to light the horrors of the Vietnam War; the image was a reflection of a conflict that embroiled a nation. Its lack of censorship helped us realize the need to extract ourselves from the war, to effect change on a global level.

Nothing constructive was accomplished by bringing Kumaritišvili’s final moments into the living rooms of North America. The footage is excessive and without purpose; it’s not seeking to change anything.

In 2001, when a similar video of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash on the track of the Daytona 500 was replayed over and over, it could be argued the publicity contributed to racing safety improvements, including seat belt inspections and head and neck restraints.

Still, the officials involved recognized that the accident was an improbable one and that drastic changes in the sport would not be effective. “We are … not going to react for the sake of reacting,” declared NASCAR President Mike Helton.

This sentiment could have been echoed by Olympic organizers handling the aftermath of Kumaritišvili’s death, who noted they were changing the luge course more for the benefit of the athletes’ states of mind than to correct any mechanical flaws.

It appears, then, that the mass distribution of Kumaritišvili’s fatal moment of impact can’t even claim to have a purpose in education or safety. Sure, it’s relative to the Olympics, and it’s certainly news, but the bottom line is that death is something that should be granted privacy.

If nothing constructive can come of a world seeing a man’s final moments, there’s no excuse for using it to garner publicity and make a profit. NBC, in its eagerness to provide us the full story with graphic content, should have used more discretion.

Kastalia Medrano is a freshman majoring in print journalism.

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