Following the horrific Fox News screwup in airing footage of a motorist shooting himself after a prolonged car chase in Arizona, Gawker and BuzzFeed posted the offending video, including the distrurbing end. Other news organizations declined to take that step.
Some criticism followed. This question emerged from the Columbia Journalism Review’s feed: “Who’s worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @Buzzfeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?”
BuzzFeed Press Manager Ashley McCollum passed along this statement on the site’s decision-making: “Making an editorial decision on how to cover a sensitive, tragic news event like this is never an easy one. But it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization. We posted both an edited version and the full version and we respect our readers’ judgement.”
Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan posted this note at the foot of his post:
A word on our decision to run the Fox News clip: some Gawker staffers were against publishing the clip. My position was that it is clearly news, and that we should run it on that basis. When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news. It is unpleasant, but it is news. You may legitimately decide to watch it or not, but it is news. (And for those who think this is all a cynical page view ploy, a cute cat video will do better than a gruesome suicide video; it’s also a far easier choice not to publish something like this, just to spare yourself the negative outcry.) When we start picking and choosing whether or not we run clearly newsworthy things based on whether or not they make us queasy, we’re in slippery slope territory. It is, in my opinion, ethical to run the clip. (Some of my colleagues may still disagree.)
Both sites posted language fronting the troublesome video so that visitors could avoid the jarring end of the footage, though BuzzFeed’s warning could be stronger.
BuzzFeed and Gawker are correct that coverage of this broadcasting disaster requires a complete compilation of relevant artifacts. Yet the justification for such inclusion goes beyond that sturdy rationale. What happened in that patch of Arizona real estate is in the end a story about accountability — how could Fox have screwed this up, how could it have failed to “get off it,” as anchor Shepard Smith began chanting to his producers. Sorry, but having that gruesome video readily at hand — for anyone who could stomach it — facilitiates that accountability.
It all goes beyond the Fox producers who screwed up, too. Blame extends to all those on Twitter and in homes across the country who tune in and gossip about car chases. This blogger is part of that demographic, to judge from my own car-chase-coverage cheerleading. Any time we want to what sort of television our prurient fascination enables, we can just click on Gawker and BuzzFeed for the evidence.