Was Olympic luger death video just pandering to voyeurism?
By Christine DobbySomeone is always watching. Whether it’s a security camera, cell phone, cheap digital camera or professional camera crew, major and minor events alike are all documented.
Occasionally, this means people’s deaths are caught on film. Their dying moments, rendered in slow motion, become part of our collective celluloid memory.
But should they? Should media outlets publish these images and distribute them widely for general consumption?
The death of a Georgian luger, just prior to the opening of the Olympic Games last week, raised these questions anew. The video of Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death was initially broadcast in its entirety before most networks began showing an edited version.
The New York Times published an interesting graphic representation of the fatal run on its website which showed Kumaritashvili’s sled position at various points in the run. The final frame includes a picture of his body hurtling towards a steel pole, milliseconds before impact. Some outlets, like the Vancouver Sun, decided not to post video or still images of the death.
Also in the news this week, the anonymous amateur video, which captured the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan’s life during the 2009 Iranian election protests, won a George Polk Award for Journalism. And closer to home, the Toronto court presiding over the trial of two men charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of a passerby outside the Brass Rail in 2008 released security footage of the moment John O’Keefe was shot and killed. The Globe and Mail, as well as other news organizations, published the video on its website.
There’s an argument to be made that the public has an interest in seeing these images. It has been said that the video of Neda’s death produced heightened awareness of just how serious the situation in Iran was. Similarly, images of Kumaritashvili’s crash tell the story and illustrate the sheer danger of his sport and the track in a way that words alone cannot convey.
But I wonder whether part of my own interest in these photos and videos is not simply grim fascination and voyeurism. Meanwhile, friends and family of the deceased are left to confront the images, often while still in the throes of grief.
Legitimate public interest has to be balanced against good taste and compassion and deciding whether and how to publish is a tough call. One worth thinking about before I’m actually in the position to make it.
Christine Dobby is a former lawyer now studying journalism in Ryerson’s master of journalism program.