Fox News anchor Shepard Smith apologized to his audience this afternoon after his program inadvertently aired live video of a man killing himself.
The channel had been airing coverage of a high-speed chase in rural Arizona, aerial cameras following the driver as he left his vehicle and ran, seemingly disoriented, into some brush. With Fox’s afternoon audience watching, the pursued man pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head. Smith yelled to the control room, too late, to cut away, and Fox abruptly cut to a commercial.
After the break, a shaken Smith returned to the air and gave a blunt apology, saying the network had the chase on a five-second delay but had somehow failed to cut away from the horrible scene:
We really messed up. And we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV. We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV. And I personally apologize to you that that happened. We see a lot of things that we see that we don’t get to you because it’s not time-appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong. That was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch, and I’m sorry.
Immediately after the incident, commenters on Twitter began criticizing websites like Buzzfeed and Mediaite for posting video of the on-air shooting. (Warning: links include the graphic video.) At minimum, the clip would seem to violate
violates the terms of YouTube, which state, “Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone being physically hurt, attacked or humiliated, don’t post it. YouTube is not a shock site. Don’t post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies or similar things intended to shock or disgust.” [Update: as of this writing, the video is available on YouTube; whether the clip violates the site's terms or gets an exception is, obviously, YouTube's call.]
However unsettling, the fact that a major news channel mistakenly aired live footage of a suicide is news. But that doesn’t mean you have to run the snuff video itself; if you have the means to rip a video clip from TV and embed it on your Web page, you could easily edit out the actual shooting and still show viewers the context of the broadcast and the mistake (as BuzzFeed did with one version of the video it posted).
The bigger question here, though — and one that Fox is hardly alone in facing — is, Why televise live car chases in the first place? They’re not national news (with the extremely rare exception of something like the O.J. Simpson pursuit). They don’t tell us much of anything about anything. They’re on because they excite the audience, because anything could happen — which means, to be blunt, because somebody could die. (And let’s not forget the audience here. I wasn’t watching the chase live, but if you looked on Twitter afterward, you could easily find a record of people’s excitement in live-tweeting the chase turning to horror only after the safety net failed and they watched a man die.)
In a sense, the usual practice with car chases like this, which is to apply a delay while airing footage that’s not newsworthy to begin with, risks making actual dangerous situations into something like a movie: you get the thrills while feeling protected from seeing anything truly terrible happen to someone. Nothing bad could really occur in front of your eyes. It’s TV! They’d never let that happen! But whether someone “lets that happen” or not, it is really happening, somewhere, to a real person, whose self-destructive behavior is being turned into ratings.
Taking precautions to cut away from the actual moment of death is well intended. And good on Shep Smith for giving a straight-up, blunt apology to viewers. But when he says, “That won’t happen again on my watch,” there’s one good way for him, and the rest of TV news, to make sure of it: don’t use car chases as infotainment.