Car Chases, Live TV, and EthicsS

So, Fox News has, excruciatingly, just broadcast live video of a man committing suicide after a car chase. Fox anchor Shep Smith said afterwards that the network was on a five-second delay, but that the video got through regardless. A network technician being too slow on the button is not the real issue here. The real issue is that car chases aren't worthy of live television (and this might be the thing that brings them to an end).

The fact is that all live TV holds the potential for disaster. If a fan runs onto the field at an NFL game and shoots himself in the head in front of all the cameras, it will be broadcast. It's live TV. It stands to reason, then, that live TV should carry a somewhat higher standard. That is, a cable news network—no matter how slow a news day it's having—should not break into coverage in order to show something live, unless that thing is compelling and newsworthy enough to justify the risk of something disastrous happening, just like this.

Of course, viewers love car chases. They're exciting. So networks show them. They get ratings. And the reason they get ratings is that they contain, always, the potential for mayhem. Mayhem is excitement. A car crash, a foot chase, a police tasering—all are a strong possibility, right before our eyes. So we watch, and the networks knows this, so the networks give us what we want. This is the supply and demand dynamic that drives cable news broadcasting.

But we don't want too much mayhem. We don't want to witness a suicide live on television in the middle of the day. This is the ethical problem: a car chase contains a high potential for mayhem, without any inherent news value otherwise. It is simply mayhem porn. And it will always be impossible to predict when something awful and wretched and bloody will happen in one of these situations. And therefore, by running these things on live TV, a news network is running the risk that something like this will happen. The only solution is not to run car chases on live TV, despite the public appetite for them. It's a case in which the risk for disaster outweighs any real journalistic value. (There is none).

A madman could run on stage during the presidential debates, on live television, and kill himself. But A) this is highly unlikely, and B) the presidential debates have a very strong inherent news value, so the (tiny) risk is completely justified. It's a good use of live TV. Or, take a reporter broadcasting live from a war zone. There is a greater risk for disaster, yes, but there is also a very high news value, a true journalistic purpose, and this could, theoretically, justify a live broadcast as well. But a car chase has a high potential for disaster, and a low or absent real news value. It should not be on live TV. This incident could be the last time you see a car chase on live TV—until, of course, it's a celebrity in a car chase. No network will resist that. The O.J. Simpson Standard is the new standard for car chases. We will never live in an America that would not show the O.J. Simpson car chase on live TV.

*A word on our decision to run the Fox News clip: some Gawker staffers were against publishing the clip. My position was that it is clearly news, and that we should run it on that basis. When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news. It is unpleasant, but it is news. You may legitimately decide to watch it or not, but it is news. (And for those who think this is all a cynical page view ploy, a cute cat video will do better than a gruesome suicide video; it's also a far easier choice not to publish something like this, just to spare yourself the negative outcry.) When we start picking and choosing whether or not we run clearly newsworthy things based on whether or not they make us queasy, we're in slippery slope territory. It is, in my opinion, ethical to run the clip. (Some of my colleagues may still disagree.)

Photo: AP.