Scenes of a slippery death

The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, just hours before the 2010 Winter Olympics launched, sparked questions about sports safety—and a debate over TV footage choices. As Connie Monk reports, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is ready to weigh in.

CTV National employees watch the first video of the Georgian luger's crash

CTV National employees watching the first video of the Georgian luger’s crash

The buzz in the CTV control room on February 12th was like election night for news junkies or the Stanley Cup final for hockey fans. The Olympic Games were igniting national pride across the country as the torch was passed from the hands of ordinary Canadians to special Olympians and even California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Demonstrations along the torch’s route had seemed only to strengthen public support for the Games, due to start that night. Olympic activity was already wall to wall on CTV, the Games’ official broadcaster, with extended coverage on partner stations Sportsnet, RDS and TSN.

That Friday morning, live streaming of pre-Olympic events — including training runs — was already battling for eyeballs with other media’s specials and backgrounders. Then, just before noon, the CTV newsroom in Vancouver learned that a Georgian luger had crashed at the Whistler Sliding Centre, already dubbed the fastest track in the world.

Only CTV had crash footage, and producers and news managers crowded around to watch an in-house feed. A sleek figure raced smoothly down the run, and then slid up the track’s side to slam into a concrete girder. You can watch the accident footage here

No one knew how seriously Nodar Kumaritashvili was injured — only that he had been taken away in an ambulance. And that CTV owned the only video of  the crash. In minutes, CTV News Director Margo Harper needed to make a decision — to air or not to air the dramatic crash footage — that has since become the subject of widespread debate and complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. The council will release its decision this week.

 “The footage was very disturbing,” Harper says, “but we had a discussion as a group and decided to air all of it, because his condition was unknown, and because it raised serious questions about the safety of a key Olympic venue, a venue that some had already warned was too fast.”

Harper called Robert Hurst, president of CTV News, who agreed with the Vancouver team’s decision to break into the network’s torch-run special and air the crash footage.

It ran, in its entirety, just before noon. 

“The next time we ran footage of the crash was during a newscast that we broadcast within the torch special at 3 p.m.,” Harper says, “and we again showed all of the crash for the same two reasons: condition unknown, and important questions about track safety.”

A few blocks away in downtown Vancouver, the CBC newsroom was also debating what to do — even though CBC had only still shots of the crash.  News Director Wayne Williams has dealt with these kinds of ethical decisions many times and, as in any major newsroom, discussed options with other news managers to try to come up with a decision quickly, but one which can be defended to the public.

“Every case is different,” Williams says, “and each has its own challenges and difficulties. The easy route is to play it safe and not air a controversial image. That may not be in the public’s interest either.

“We were horrified when we saw the footage and almost relieved that the decision on running it was not ours to make. We didn’t feel envious of them [CTV].”

On the ethics of running tragic footage, Williams has this advice: “First of all imagine how you’d feel if this was your son or daughter. Then try to balance that with our responsibility to an informed public. So if we decide to show video we also need talk through how it will be presented. How will we establish the context for showing it so our audiences understand the decision to air it as well?” 

It was one thing to run the footage when no one knew the fate of Nodar Kumaritashvili, but when broadcasters learned he was dead they swiftly changed course.

CTV’s Harper says: “Once we knew it was a fatality, we revised our position on how to handle the images and from that point forward, we decided to always cut the footage at the moment just before the sled left the track and that’s what we’ve done ever since.”

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which adjudicates complaints under the codified standards established by Canada’s private broadcasters and news directors, received 145 complaints about CTV’s airing of the footage. Of these, three complainants filed the necessary Ruling Requests to advance the process. The council’s adjudicators studied the complaints and responses from the broadcaster, and have reached a decision in light of the RTNDA code of journalistic ethics and the journalism provisions of the television violence code.

That decision will be forwarded to the broadcaster on Tuesday, December 14th, and released publicly the next day.

UPDATE, from a CBSC press release about its decision:

“The CBSC concluded that broadcasting video footage of the accident did not violate broadcasting standards regarding the depiction of violence or the respect for human dignity”

“The Panel agreed with CTV that this was a significant story to cover and that the accompanying visual component was relevant.  The Panel found no breach of the CAB Violence Code because the footage had not sensationalized or exaggerated the tragedy, and because CTV had broadcast appropriate warnings before showing the footage.”

Connie Monk is Program Head of Broadcast Journalism at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. A former reporter, anchor and producer for CFCW Radio and ITV in Edmonton and for CKVU in Vancouver and CBC TV, she is a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.