Graphic video concerns

A police chase leads to a head-on collision. Two people are killed. And it’s all live on TV. It’s happened before, and it always sparks a debate about how stations decide what to air and when. This time, it happened in Phoenix when police were chasing a suspected bank robber and local stations’ helicopters were following the action.

KPHO-TV aired the chase and the crash live.  But news director Tom Bell told the Arizona Republic that his chopper photographer panned away immediately after the impact, and live coverage switched back to the studio. The video did not air again.

[Bell] decided the footage was too graphic to show on the newscast. The station included the video on its Web site Wednesday but included a warning label. On Thursday, the video had been edited, ending just before impact and picking up shortly after the crash.

A competing station made a different decision, according to the paper. KNXV-TV did not take the chase live, and later aired video of the pursuit and aftermath but not the crash. And instead of keeping the unedited video online, the station created a slide show. What lessons can be learned from all of this?

As with most ethical dilemmas, there is no one “right” decision, and there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow. But RTNDA has guidelines that can help when dealing with graphic video:

When covering live events that could turn graphic quickly, have you taken sufficient precautions to prevent inappropriate pictures and sound from airing? Is there someone else available to help collaborate on the decision? Have you considered instructing field crews to stay wide on live camera shots?

As always, journalists have to balance competing interests. Their number one goal is to tell the truth as fully as possible. Airing unedited, graphic video would certainly achieve that goal, but it’s not the only consideration. Journalists also need to consider the harm their coverage might cause. From what we know about the latest incident in Phoenix, it appears that all of the stations weighed their decisions carefully; they just came to different conclusions. It’s likely that what happened in Phoenix just a few months earlier–a fatal crash involving two TV news helicopters–informed their decision-making. But from what I can see online, the stations have missed an opportunity to use their Web sites to explain their police chase coverage to the public. And that’s a shame.

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