There is no road map for Internet ethics

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada began under a dark shadow of tragedy as a luger from the country of Georgia was killed during practice Friday.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was on the final corner of the course during a training run when he had a serious crash and was thrown from the sled and smashed into an unpadded steel beam. The horrific accident came just hours before the game’s opening ceremony.

I learned of the tragedy while having dinner at a restaurant. A TV in the distance was tuned to CNN and I read the breaking news title which revealed that a luger had died after a crash. Just seconds later, CNN aired video of the crash which caused everyone at my table to cringe and gasp in shock. Were CNN and other news stations out of line for airing that video? I think so.

After searching the Internet I found the video on YouTube, no surprise there, but also found it on NBC, CNN and ABC’s Web sites. I couldn’t find it on Web sites for FOX News or CBS, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Online, each video was prefaced with a graphic content warning, alerting viewers that the material about to be shown may not be suitable for all audiences. I wish I had received a similar message before seeing it air on CNN.

I understand that some people might have wanted to see video of the crash for whatever reason, but I guarantee you the luger’s family and friends did not. I have less of an issue with the video being posted online because standards are different on the Internet. Online, a user chooses what they watch and read and click off quick and easy, but on TV, the station chooses what to broadcast. The Internet is a user experience and TV is a viewer experience.

The video is actually on our Web site, TheTimesNews.com. It is located within our Olympic section, which is a syndicated site put together by The Associated Press. We do not control the content on the site. The video there does not have a disclaimer, but I have written the Associated Press to request they add one.

Airing the video is a question of ethics and I have been dealing more with ethical issues in the last two weeks than in the last two years. With today’s technology and the Internet we have unlimited access to information and often have more content than we know what to do with. And lately, more and more of that content is showing up online.

Earlier this month, one of our photographers went out to the scene of two separate and unrelated incidents and took some photographs. Two of the photos showed male victims being helped by paramedics and you could see that they were bleeding. He e-mailed the photos to me with a little bit of information about what happened. The information was vague since authorities were still trying to piece everything together. A few hours later, the photos and information were posted online with an end tag that read “Check back at TheTimesNews.com as more information becomes available.”

Later that morning as I sat in my “Media Issues” class, ironic I know, I received an e-mail from one of our reporters who felt that we should take the photos down. She was sensitive to the victims and thought they should be removed. We discussed the issue back-and-forth through e-mail and I wrestled with a tough call. It was perfectly legal for us to publish those photos online, but was it ethical?

There is no real precedent for online ethics because the Internet is too unfamiliar and unpoliced. In the end, I decided to take the photos down. I didn’t feel that they brought enough news value to the story to outweigh their graphic nature. I am still torn on that decision and there really is no right answer. I am sure the TV stations debated their decision to air the luge crash video too. The bottom line is that these issues are difficult to decide and unfortunately, we will face them time and time again.

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