There is a section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that deals with “Minimize Harm”. In this section, journalists can find suggestions to minimize the impact of certain types of coverage on the general public.
The reason for guidelines like this (I knew that Media Ethics course would come in handy) is to minimize the harm that may be caused as a result of reporting news – such as protecting victims of crimes or minors, but also the use of compassion and sensitivity when dealing with the certain subject matter.
It’s this section of The SPJ Code of Ethics that left me questioning the recent coverage of Nodar Kumaritashvili’s tragic death during a training run on The Whistler Track at the Winter Olympics this past Friday.
While the reporting of the event was handled with compassion and viewers were warned of the graphic nature of the video they were about to see, I seriously question the use of the video footage as part of the reporting.
For starters, the footage clearly depicted the death of the 21-year-old Georgian athlete as he flew off the track and collided with a steel beam on the side of the course. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever seeing somebody die on the evening news. While rescue crews rushed to save the injured athlete, there was no question from the footage that he had in fact died in the accident.
This incident raises bigger questions for me regarding the use of the SPJ Code of Ethics in journalism today. It’s relatively easy to think of more than a few examples of news stories that violate each line in The Code.
The SPJ Code of Ethics exists to guide ethical decision-making in journalism. There are no laws to enforce The Code, and I don’t think there should be (that whole 1st Amendment thing), but they should still be used by journalists.
I can’t help but think of the friends, family, and fellow Georgians that watched that footage on the evening news – some may have learned the news first from the coverage. While the Opening Ceremonies were dedicated to the Kumaritashvili, I think the use of this footage took away from the tribute.
There is no right or wrong way to report the news. It’s my position that the footage shouldn’t have been used. If I were a journalist deciding whether or not to use the footage, I would have opted to not use it based on these suggestions in the “Minimize Harm” section of The Code:
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief
- Show good taste – avoid pandering to lurid curiosity
I’m paraphrasing a few of these guidelines, but you get the idea. I think this is an example of ratings over ethics. I think the story could have been reported without the use of the footage.
If there’s another thing I remember about my Media Ethics class, it’s everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What do you think?