On Friday, September 28, Fox News broadcast live the suicide of an Arizona carjacking suspect. A lengthy apology from anchor Shepard Smith followed immediately, and it appeared to be quite genuine and heartfelt - fortified with disappointment and anger about the apparent mistake.
Fox had been covering the high speed car chase west on Interstate 10 toward California. Pursued by police, the carjacking suspect stopped, got out of the car, awkwardly ran, and soon produced a gun. The network’s live footage, on a five-second delay, came via an affiliate Fox channel helicopter. Such five-second delays are intended to prevent what happened; if something inappropriate for television takes place, the network has time to cut away. Despite news anchor Smith’s demands to “Get off it! Get off it!” (in other words, ordering the television control room to cut away), the feed maintained. The carjacking suspect shot himself in the head in front of 1.8 million Fox News viewers.
While Shepard Smith handled the debacle in the best way possible, the ghastly incident brings up questions about ethics - or lack thereof - in televised news.
In general, I’m torn when it comes to the subject of real-life violence being graphically displayed on the news. Often, my reaction would be the same as Shepard Smith’s, who expressed to his viewers that showing the carjacker kill himself “was wrong - that didn’t belong on TV.”
For me, the Fox News foul-up brought back memories of Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer, who shot himself during a videotaped press conference in 1987. The cameras were close, and the footage was graphic. Pennsylvania news stations showed the footage that night during their evening news. Many programs edited the event to exclude the more graphic and shocking frames. Other newscasts showed the disturbing incident unedited, in its entirety. One Philadelphia station broadcast Dwyer’s suicide twice, in full, on their 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news, without even a warning to viewers. There was no “live feed delay / human error” to blame; nor were there, to my knowledge, any apologies from news anchors or television executives. The broadcast of Dwyer’s violent, blood-soaked death was deliberate and unabashed.
I was a teenager living near Pittsburgh at the time. I remember vividly the controversy over how Pennsylvania newscasters handled the incident. I also saw the unedited footage of Dwyer’s death … once. It impacted me deeply. The imagery is haunting still – not necessarily because of how graphic it is – but because it provides an obscenely intimate connection to the termination of a human being’s life. It is extremely difficult to watch – as it should be.
Given how disruptive-to-the-soul footage of real-life death is, I’d tend to side with news anchor Smith. It should not be on television.
However, things are never black and white. There are additional layers to the issue of televised violence. If something horrible appears on your television screen, and you are shocked by it, positive things can result. There are times that exhibiting something cruel, something corrupt, something deadly – in a way that graphically and shockingly exposes a grim truth – would be the responsible thing for a television news network to do. It could lead to outraged viewers actually doing something to effect positive change.
In the old three-network days, the news divisions were expected to lose money. The news was seen as a service - a socially-constructive, reliable facet of TV, where journalistic integrity was the priority.
Times have changed. Today, the news you see on TV is directly or indirectly determined by how many dollars go into the pockets of a few. Televised news is a business. Essentially, decisions are made based on advertising income. The most likely reason a news station would broadcast real death, violence, and gore is singular and vile: profits.
Contacts at Fox News have supported speculations that the network held on the helicopter camera shot, and let the carjacker’s death be broadcast live intentionally. The official statement from Fox News is that it was human error, but insiders at the network hint that a news producer in control of what-gets-cut-to-when was intentionally slow to dump the helicopter camera feed – thereby throwing an obviously-incensed Shepard Smith under the bus.
Why are the news outlets airing live high-speed police pursuits in the first place? Are potentially-deadly car chases actually newsworthy to anyone outside of the vicinity? Does this kind of news coverage have any true worth? Or are the leering eyes in the sky hoping to catch tragedy and bloodshed on camera so that advertising rates can enjoy a bit of a lift?
It makes financial sense to spike the ratings, get some publicity, and wring more money from the advertisers immediately… The apologies offered later, including Smith’s, are quick, easy, and don’t cost the network a penny.
Even if Fox News “professionals” had the wherewithal to make such decisions, determining what hits the airwaves would never be an easy task. If I were interested in broadcasting it for the “right” reasons, Pennsylvania politician Dwyer’s on-camera suicide is one example of what would be a very difficult decision. If it were for titillation, for a voyeuristic peek at the misfortune of a stranger, then bringing that imagery into our living rooms would be morally repugnant. However, if the man’s death illustrated a grisly truth, and if exposing that truth could lead Americans to a better understanding of how high-pressure, cruel, and broken our government is, then the footage should be broadcast in full, without a single frame censored.
Americans tend to be coddled and sheltered from the harsh realities of the world. Horrific imagery that has any real impact on how we see our national or world community is censored or buried entirely. Bloody images, hate-fueled events, death, destruction, and horrifying violence around the world, as well as on our own soil (coverage of Hurricane Katrina) are often kept from the American human herd so we can continue to happily engage in our rampant consumerism, playing with our smart phones, and eating McDonalds. So, it would seem, “frivolous” violence that can be consumed as entertainment brings in the advertising dollars, and is encouraged. However, I guess when it pops our little bubbles and really bums us out, it’s not newsworthy. I don’t call that journalism.
If I actually thought it would clean up a corrupt police department, halt animal cruelty, put a dangerous criminal in jail, expose abrasive truths about the world in which we live, or in any other way improve the quality of life in the community around me, I’d be all for news networks’ broadcast of appalling, real-life atrocities. Unfortunately, I don’t tend to trust that news media professionals (in general) have the ethics or maturity to make decisions based on such criteria. Considering their collective behavior, I would not allow today’s news professionals to determine what is newsworthy - similar to the way you take something sharp away from a child who cannot carry it safely.
Thanks for reading.