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Should News Sites ‘Glorify’ Live, On-Air Suicide?

Like many others, I watched a man shoot himself on “Live TV”, days after it went live. I watched Fox News anchor Shepard Smith react too late to an incident he could not have predicted. Will Oremus summarises the event:

Live coverage of a car chase on Fox News turned into a grisly spectacle Friday afternoon when the suspect got out of his car, stumbled down a hillside, pulled a gun, and shot himself in the head. As the scene unfolded, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith grew increasingly apprehensive, then yelled “get off it, get off it!”, belatedly urging the show’s producers to stop the live feed as it became obvious the man was going to do something rash. The station cut awkwardly to a commercial just after showing his death.

Yet what is of concern is not whether Fox News “messed up”, but whether Internet news-sites should’ve made, posted, linked to and advertised short clips of that particular segment.

BuzzFeed immediately posted the footage on YouTube, where it garnered more than 1,000 “likes” in under an hour. “Here’s the video of that car chase suicide aired by Fox News,” tweeted Dorsey Shaw, who makes videos and gifs for Buzzfeed. BuzzFeed’s official account quickly retweeted it, and it began to make the rounds. (And to be fair, it wasn’t just BuzzFeed. Gawker subsequently posted the video on its site as well, as did the blog Mediaite, and the Drudge Report initially linked to BuzzFeed’s post, though it soon changed its top link to Smith’s apology.)

With the network of links, ReTweets, Facebook posts, upvotes, downvotes, do we gain anything from watching a man put a bullet in his head? Do we really need this? Is this news worth its current permanency and glorification via YouTube and our and BuzzFeed’s and Gawker’s linking?

Our concern should not be for dignity, but clarity. We should be discouraged by television, shows, books, people that purport to engage with reality, but instead put a stick made of profit through their engagements and roll it through the sickly, sweet glut of voyeuristic intrigue; a catalyst for eyes and clicks to draw more attention to their station, their books, their papers – more watching, more links, more profit. Look, click, Like, Tweet, ReTweet. No longer are we being told the news, no longer are we gaining awareness of the world: instead, we catch glimpses of it through the pink sweet fluff and, therefore, can’t ever say we’ve seen it all.

This does, of course, tie into the wider discussion of what is worth reporting: almost all celebrity matters, car accidents, murders, and so on, are not actually informing, except on a very basic level. We gain no knowledge as citizens, as road-users, as persons. Sure, we can detail exactly how this car pileup started in this road we all know to be busy; we can outline the events of a random individual who drank too much and went too far with his hands and his wife. But there’s often confusion between being rightfully outraged of such events and being a human camcorder.

We’re in a world where seconds separate our favourite TV-shows and news, yet increasingly we’re being encouraged to react the same to both. This isn’t because the news is actually interested in informing you: it’s interested in your attention.

Just ‘Cos It’s News

BuzzFeed and Gawker claim they’re reporting what is (already) news (elsewhere) and, since they’re news entities, they ought to report it – but this seems to me fallacious thinking. It’s tautological; it’s not a justification so much as a description for why they did it. It’s not reason worthy of moral support.

As Hamilton Nolan, a Gawker writer deserving of much respect, claimed:

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. [Emphasis added.]

Reading Nolan’s entire piece, this paragraph seems almost hypocritical, since he rightfully claims that “a car chase contains a high potential for mayhem, without any inherent news value otherwise. It is simply mayhem porn.” But Nolan still claims an ethical obligation to report it. “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.”

This is the main problem. Disgust is almost never sufficient reason for anything. Disgust is as varied as any other mere emotional response. If we acceded to disgust, nothing would probably exist (in the media). But Nolan is committing a fallacious assertion here: He’s assuming the only reason to oppose Gawker’s decision (which, it must be noted, was opposed by some in its ranks) rests on disgust. Nolan himself tapped into the key question: is this news or porn? Is this educating or feeding voyeurism?

It is of course up to us as viewers to reinforce ethical responses to events. We aren’t mindless drones. We’re persons, beings with concerns and thus we must recognise we’re not just passive media sponges: just because a celebrity did something bad is no reason for us to taunt, threaten or deride her; just because a writer plagiarised, is no reason to dedicate webpage after webpage, blog after blog, nit-picking every thing he does when it’s no longer informative.

But it is also up to our sources of information to decide how they convey that information and, indeed, whether they should. The argument that because something is news it is therefore worth perpetuating is not, as we noted, an argument: it’s a description of what news-sites do. One could argue many parts: if you don’t like it, ignore it. If you don’t want to watch it, don’t. But this misses the point: news-sites also know they wield the interpretation of this data. The language, the terms, the pictures, and even the decision to display this event effects how we respond to it. It’s now widely understood that events can’t be objectively reported: but knowing this, news-sites and reporters are under a further obligation to decide “Should we report this? If so, how?”

Showing and Telling

Yes, it’s hard to imagine news-sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker not linking or creating the clip. But a lack of imagination is not a reason to stay silent; it’s no reason to encourage sites not to do so. After all, they already have some of the smartest writers who recognise the voyeurism they’re feeding. Why not take active, showable steps to say: “We don’t want to treat reality like a gameshow: we don’t want to treat people as mere TV characters; we recognise these are people with non-guilty loved ones, friends and so on who could be affected, too, by our engagement with this event, even if these original people did something wrong.”

For example, it would be truly telling for a site to merely write about the event, without going into detail to glorify it. As this psychiatrist made clear to TV news stations, if we want to see less violence, stations are under a moral obligation not to sensationalise mass shootings, since it is this attention, this veneration, that many gunmen are seeking. If the gunman guilty of the Aurora Shootings can have devoted fans, it’s not a strain to recognise this as an important factor.

Sensationalism masked as news, as opposed to underwhelming but accurate reportage, surely is not helping in the lives of the mentally unstable seeking justification for their actions. It is a difficult debate and I’m uncertain how responsible news is – people blame news, games and film all the time. But I think even those like myself, sceptical of the extent to which various media are “responsible” for encouraging violence, can’t be glad of the fluff treatment of violent events in relation to future acts.

Should BuzzFeed and Gawker and others have created the YouTube clip? No. Most of us, I think, gained little from this clip. It was a terrible event, with no context, no assessment. It was simply a man running who, at the end, shot himself. Should BuzzFeed and Gawker report on it? Perhaps: but even if they did, there’s no reason to link to or create the YouTube clip. Let viewers do that. We can safely say that if BuzzFeed did not link directly to the clip, fewer people would see it; fewer would have their voyeurism fed. And the sooner we kill off the appetite for all kinds of media-inflamed voyeurism, made manifest under the guise of “being informed”, fed by the fluff of news-as-sensation, we can deal better with what is really happening, with facts, with real arguments. This is no pipe-dream. It can happen as soon as we take responsibility as moral citizens of the Internet, as moral audience members – a term that we must encourage. After all, if nobody’s watching, no site will be interested. But, too, they can help kill this “mayhem porn” by not dressing their job title up as moral argument.

We know it’s news, we know you’re a news-site. But that’s not a moral reason to report everything merely asserted as news. There are ways to report that don’t require the full extent of your resources, even if those resources take only twenty seconds to make and upload a product and five seconds to link to it.

UPDATE & APOLOGY: In a stupid moment, I chose to use an image of the very thing I was criticising. A friend pointed this out to me. My apologies: I was unthinking and careless. It was/is currently the early hours, after spending the day writing it.

Image Credit: Wags05 (source)

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