Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Nodar Kumaritashvili

As you have no doubt heard by now, there was a tragic accident at Men's Singles Luge training at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Friday.

21-year old Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili slid off his sled and off the track, hitting a solid post. When it happened, I was in the Mixed Zone. I didn't not personally see the incident, but I heard a disturbance. The reporters who were watching the live footage on the big screen exclaimed in surprise and distress.

Hours after it was all over, after the Opening Ceremonies, after a comforting dinner with some of my co-workers and lighting some candles at the Olympic rings in Whistler Village, I came home and turned on the TV. It was still all over the news. As well as a soldier's death in Afghanistan and a young woman's death in Ontario. It was a tough night for Canada.

I also posted a few stories on the incident. One on juggling being a reporter and being a human being. One on the balance between reporting the news and exploiting someone's death.

The latter got a lot of comments on my Facebook page, and most people agreed that the footage of the crash leading to Nodar's death should not have been showed. However, they disagreed on the degree to which the death should have been reported. I would like to share the comment I wrote in response to theirs.

It is worth noting that this was my third comment on the story. The first explained how the Olympic Broadcast Service cut the feed of the crash as soon as it happened, but CTV, ABC and other networks aired the full crash footage. CTV stopped airing the actual crash once it became clear that Nodar had passed away. ABC not only showed the full crash, they also aired a picture of his bloody face, receiving CPR before being put in the ambulance.

My second comment referred to the idea that people "need to know" and the media being the ones to deliver that information to keep people informed, though I didn't agree with airing the full footage and said that if someone was truly compelled to watch it, they could be pointed to it online.

Commentators on the post talked about conscience, the morbid interest we have in death - something we can't understand, on ratings and money, on having limits and respect and not airing something if you're "struggling" with the decision, on family and friends having to see it over and over again, and on how the incident airing live could not have been prevented but networks would never air the footage of someone being shot to death.

Without further ado, here is my long-winded response to all these concerns and comments. It is my form of therapy and sharing it with you will make it easier for me to deal with this horrific incident, put it behind me, and enjoy the rest of the Olympic Games.

There was no way of knowing what would happen live, so that's not up for discussion. I personally don't think that it should have aired completely, but if it hadn't, I and other reporters who are covering the story would have seen it and wouldn't have been able to understand what happened.
That doesn't mean that I would have put it on a broadcast. Like I said, I would have aired up until the sled started slipping, and cut it there.

An article doesn't work for TV, unfortunately, and having an anchor on cam for over a minute describing the incident doesn't work either.

There are rules in Canada - and journalistic ethics - that prevent the showing of someone's death on TV and it should have stayed that way. If there was any indication at all that Nodar had passed away (which there was - one reporter I talked to who saw the crash live (on the venue screen) said right away that he thought Nodar might be dead), then you shouldn't show the moment of death. It's a lack of respect, it's unnecessary, and it's gruesome.

Ratings shouldn't matter in this case. What if his family and/or friends had been watching and this was how they heard/learned about the death?

Similarly, nothing serious should have been tweeted/FB about the incident until the family was notified and the IOC confirmed the death. Reporting that there was a major crash is one thing. Putting it out there that he's dead when there hasn't been a confirmation is unacceptable.

Yes, journos want to get the story and get it first, but at some point, humanity has to step in. Just as there are embargo rules on deaths in military zones, there should be embargo rules applied to ALL deaths.

As for having it online, I don't think it should be advertised, but human beings can't help but be curious and want to see it for themselves to believe it, even if the footage is behind a gazillion disclaimers - people tend to ignore those. In this case, competition and ratings did take over, but before any networks put the OBS footage online, some people had apparently already put it on YouTube. That's gross and it pisses me off.

I was there, I heard the scrapping of the sled and the initial exclamation from those who saw it happen. I felt the moment of shock, when we were all frozen in our understanding and realization of what had and may have happened. Then, someone sprung into action and decided to head down to the crash site. By then, Nodar was already being moved into the ambulance. Some reporters saw more than I did, and photographers captured some gruesome images. I don't blame them, that's human curiosity. You do want comes natural, and taking the shot is what photographers do naturally.

I saw Nodar's feet as he was put into the ambulance. That was enough for me. When I saw the crash footage later, and how still Nodar had been, there was no doubt in my mind that he died instantly. The networks should have come to the same realization and decided NOT to air the footage.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, rest in peace. Here's a prayer for your soul and the quick healing of all our hearts. May we remember only the positives from your life and may your legacy make your favourite sport safer for all. I hope you left this world full of joy and the thrill of doing what you like the most, not fear or desperation.

My condolences to the whole Olympic family.

1 comment: said...

Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death is a tragedy! Luge looks like such a neat sport, but also very dangerous at the same time. His death will cast a pall over these Olympic Games. RIP