Broadcasts of Olympic Luge Accident Were Relevant and Appropriate, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, December 15, 2010 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning CTV’s coverage of the fatal luge accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.  The CBSC concluded that broadcasting video footage of the accident did not violate broadcasting standards regarding the depiction of violence or the respect for human dignity.

In a practice run just prior to the commencement of the 2010 Winter Olympics, a luge athlete from Georgia named Nodar Kumaritashvili died when his luge flew off the track and he struck a post.  CTV broadcast footage of the accident several times on the day of the accident.  The video showed Kumaritashvili’s run, including a distant and slightly obscured view of his body hitting the post and then lying on the ground, as medics attended to him.  This footage was shown as breaking news immediately after the accident and then again later in the day once it had been confirmed that Kumaritashvili had died from his injuries.

The CBSC received 145 complaints about the broadcast of the footage, but only three individuals requested that the CBSC proceed with a review.  The complainants were concerned that the luge accident video was both violent and disturbing to viewers, as well as disrespectful and insensitive vis-à-vis the deceased luger and his grieving friends and family.  CTV stated that it had chosen to air the video only after careful consideration because it felt that the visuals were integral to this important story and clearly in the public interest.  CTV also pointed out that it had warned viewers of the disturbing nature of the clip prior to each broadcast of it.

The CBSC’s National Conventional Television Panel reviewed the complaints under the News provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code and the Privacy provision of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada’s (RTNDA) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  The Panel concluded that the broadcasts did not violate either of those Code provisions.

The Panel agreed with CTV that this was a significant story to cover and that the accompanying visual component was relevant.  The Panel found no breach of the CAB Violence Code because the footage had not sensationalized or exaggerated the tragedy, and because CTV had broadcast appropriate warnings before showing the footage.  The Panel observed

that there were no tight shots reflecting the Georgian athlete’s condition after impact.  […]  The Panel considers that the shots were fair, sufficiently distant and not in any way an attempt to exaggerate the awful circumstances of the collision with the post.  Moreover, each of the news reports, even before the outcome of Kumaritashvili’s injuries was known, was introduced by careful language advising viewers of the video report that was to follow.

With respect to the complaints about disrespecting the privacy or dignity of the luger, the Panel pointed out that the video did not contain any close-ups of the dying man and so did not include any “personalized elements” which might have constituted a breach of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  The Panel stated:

While everyone knew who it was, it was a long shot that did not in any way reveal the face of the deceased.  It was […] detached and impersonally presented […].  The Panel finds no affront to the deceased athlete.  The Panel does recognize that there was a difference in the decision to broadcast the video of the accident prior to the news that Nodar Kumaritashvili had died as opposed to after that awareness, but that decision was the broadcaster’s to take.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  Nearly 760 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab