CTV re coverage of the fatal luge accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games

national conventional television Panel
R. Cohen (Chair), H. Pawley (Vice-Chair, Public), D. Braun (ad hoc), M. Harris (ad hoc), F. Niemi, T. Reeb

THE FACTS

On February 12, 2010, just prior to the commencement of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a Georgian luge athlete named Nodar Kumaritashvili experienced a tragic accident during a practice run at the Whistler Sliding Centre.  He flew off his luge coming out of a steep turn (corner 16, called “Thunderbird”), was projected off the track, and struck one of the support posts.  The accident was caught on film by CTV (a member of the Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium and the principal English-language broadcaster of the Games), and was broadcast at various times that day, both as news of the accident was breaking and again later once it had been confirmed that Kumaritashvili had died from his injuries.

The video was approximately 40 seconds in duration.  It showed Kumaritashvili going down the luge track at a very fast speed (said to be 143 km/h).  Multiple cameras were placed along the track so that the television audience could see his and all other runs from different points along the track and at different angles.  When the luger flew off the sled, viewers heard a clang, which was presumably the sound of the luger’s helmet hitting the post.  Kumaritashvili’s limp body was partially obscured by other posts in front of the camera, but the CTV audience saw a number of people, mainly on-site medics, running towards the man.

As mentioned above, CTV broadcast the video a number of times on February 12 (complete transcripts and fuller descriptions of each of the following broadcasts can be found in Appendix A).  The first occasion was at 11:23 am Pacific Time, as news of the accident had just reached reporters.  CTV was covering the end of the Olympic Torch Relay when it interrupted that coverage to interview CTV Whistler Bureau Chief, Sarah Galashan, who explained that the accident had just happened and that the athlete had been transported to hospital.  Just before showing the video, Galashan said:

And up at the Sliding Centre, we’ve just heard of, uh, a very sad and disturbing, uh, incident.  Um, during the training, uh, a Georgian athlete has, uh, experienced a crash in the sport of luge.  We are going to show you some video here, but first, uh, uh, we have to warn our viewers, we do not know the condition of this athlete and this video is very tough to watch.

After showing the video, she went on to describe the track and to answer questions about the situation from the two CTV British Columbia news anchors, although not much information about the incident was known at the time.

The accident video was shown again about half an hour later with the warning from anchor Mike Killeen,

And we do want to warn you, uh, that we do have video of this accident.  Uh, it is very graphic and we really do want to warn you that, uh, what’s about to come is not pleasant.  But, uh, it was an accident at the Sliding Centre.  Take a look at what happened.

On that occasion, the footage was followed by updates from CTV reporter Farhan Lalji who reported that Kumaritashvili was suffering from life-threatening injuries.  Lalji also spoke with Canadian former luge athlete and Olympic broadcast analyst Chris Wightman about the track and what could be done to prevent other accidents.

By 2:58 pm, the unfortunate news that Kumaritashvili had died from his injuries had reached reporters.  As CTV British Columbia anchor Bill Good reported,

The International Olympic Committee has confirmed that an Olympic athlete has been killed after a crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre.  Our Whistler Bureau Chief Sarah Galashan is following this story and we should warn you, the images of the crash are disturbing.

Galashan introduced her update with the following warning and the accident video was shown again:

Bill, down here in the Village, the celebration has started.  But up at the Sliding Centre it’s a very different story.  The track was built to be difficult.  It is technically challenging and with a vertical drop like the one we see there, we’re getting record times recorded.  We are also seeing crashes.  But never anything like we’ve seen today.  Once again, a warning that the video we’re about to show you is difficult to watch.  And the outcome is just devastating.

This update also included clips from a press conference that had been held earlier at which the Chief Executive Officer of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee expressed his shock and sadness about the death.  Galashan also provided a brief description of the luge track and the information that further training had been postponed while officials investigated the track.  A few Olympic spectators and participants gave short interviews during which they expressed their views on the tragedy.

The story was again covered during the CTV National News that evening at 11:24 pm following the broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremony.  That newscast was anchored by Tom Clark, who again warned viewers about the disturbing footage:

Good evening from Vancouver.  On this night of Olympic celebration at this highly anticipated moment of the start of the 21st Winter Games, the world has paused in shock and sadness.  At midday today, in a final training run on the luge track, the dreams and the life of a young Olympian from Georgia came to an end.  Tonight, amid the spectacular Opening Ceremonies, the bravery of the athlete and the tragedy of his death were marked for the entire world to see.  Our coverage contains video that is disturbing, but necessary to tell this story.  We start with CTV’s Todd Battis in Whistler tonight.

Battis’ report included information about the nature of the accident, additional footage from the International Olympic Committee’s press conference, as well as scenes of other, non-fatal accidents that had also occurred on the track prior to Kumaritashvili’s run.  The newscast itself concluded with a photograph of Kumaritashvili and the words “In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, 1988-2010” and the remark from Clark, “And as we leave you tonight, please take a moment to think about Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year-old Olympian from the country of Georgia who died so tragically in practice today.”

The CBSC received a total of 145 complaints about the broadcast of the luge accident on various stations, dates and times.  Of those, 80 complainants provided enough information (specific station name, broadcast date and time) for the CBSC to pursue the complaints.  Of those 80 specific complaints, only three individuals filed Ruling Requests, which sought the CBSC’s further investigation of the broadcasts.  Although the accident footage may have aired on other occasions, the broadcasts described above are those identified by the three complainants who filed Ruling Requests.  The CBSC is only able to comment specifically on those particular broadcasts.

The complainants were concerned that showing the footage of the accident, including the moment of the luger’s impact with the post, was extremely disturbing for viewers and was also disrespectful to the deceased luger and his grieving family, friends and fellow athletes (the full text of the three complaints, as well as all other correspondence, can be found in Appendix B).  CTV’s position was that the story was in the public interest and “the visuals were integral to the story and to informing Canadians about this unfortunate tragedy.  […]  After much consideration, we decided to make available the images of the Georgian luger run in connection with news reports about this tragedy.”  The broadcaster acknowledged that events covered in the news are often tragic and shocking and that, in this particular case, the “images shown were not gratuitous or exploitive” and CTV had “[done its] best to strongly warn audiences that they may find the video disturbing.”

THE DECISION

The National Conventional Television Panel has examined the complaint under the Article 6.0 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code and Article 4 of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, which read as follows:

CAB Violence Code, Article 6.0 – News and Public Affairs Programming

6.1        Broadcasters shall use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting of, and the pictorial representation of violence, aggression or destruction within their news and public affairs programming.

6.2        Caution shall be used in the selection of, and repetition of, video which depicts violence.

6.3        Broadcasters shall advise viewers in advance of showing scenes of extra-ordinary violence, or graphic reporting on delicate subject matter such as sexual assault or court action related to sexual crimes, particularly during afternoon or early evening newscasts and updates when children could be viewing.

6.4        Broadcasters shall employ discretion in the use of explicit or graphic language related to stories of destruction, accidents or sexual violence, which could disturb children and their families.

6.5        Broadcasters shall exercise particular judgment during live coverage of domestic terrorist events or civil disorders, to ensure news coverage does not become a factor in inciting additional violence.

6.6        While broadcasters shall not exaggerate or exploit situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation, equal care shall be taken not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.

6.7        Broadcasters shall refer to The Code of Ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) for guidance regarding broadcast journalism in general.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 4 – Privacy

Broadcast journalists will respect the dignity, privacy and well-being of everyone with whom they deal, and will make every effort to ensure that news gathering and reporting does not unreasonably infringe privacy except when necessary in the public interest.  […]

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the challenged broadcasts.  The Panel concludes that CTV did not violate any of the aforementioned codified standards.

A Preliminary Point: The Use of the Video Clip at all

The Panel wishes to point out preliminarily that it does not agree with one of the complainants that the report ought to have been broadcast without the video clip.  He had asked rhetorically, “why does CTVglobemedia need to rely on the image to ‘tell the story’ when journalism can work with both images and words”?  In the view of the Panel, television is a medium that does, and is entitled to, tell stories with images.  In so doing, it needs to reflect the above-cited standards (which are discussed and explained below), but, if it does so, there will be no problem in the use of images, rather than words alone, to tell a news story.

Obligations relating to this Breaking News Story

The CAB Violence Code lays the issues out neatly for broadcasters and viewers.  Not easily but neatly.  On the one hand, according to the standards, “appropriate” editorial judgment should be used in the pictorial representation of news stories relating to violence, aggression or destruction.  A later sub-section of Article 6 includes accidents and sexual violence in the list of incidents that require care of treatment by broadcasters.  The Panel has no difficulty in assimilating accidents of the type encountered in this sad Olympic event to the need for appropriate editorial judgment.  The standards also require the exercise of caution in the selection and repetition of video clips depicting such disturbing events.

On the other hand, the standards recognize that “equal care shall be taken not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.”  After all, one of the purposes of news dissemination is to advise the public of events of importance, and it is clear that some of these will be good news and some will be tragic.  Needless to say, some will not fall into either category.  It is the right, if not the duty, of broadcasters for whom journalism is a matter of priority, to bring all such matters to the attention of their viewers (or listeners).  They are of course free to choose the stories they will tell, which they will do as a function of their view of any story’s relative importance, but there are, of course, stories that thrust themselves into the public eye and will not “be denied”.

One such story was that of the death of the Georgian luger.  It would have been an important story wherever in the world the Olympics were being held.  In the circumstances of the Canadian Olympic Games, it was, if anything, more important.  The question for this Panel is then the nature of the CTV coverage.

On this front, the Panel cannot but recognize the horror of the footage showing Nodar Kumaritashvili careening down the track and over the wall.  That said, it also realizes that there were no tight shots reflecting the Georgian athlete’s condition after impact.  There was, in other words, no effort to sensationalize or exaggerate the terrible event.  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.  The examples were: “this video is very tough to watch”; “it is very graphic and we really do want to warn you that, uh, what’s about to come is not pleasant”; “we should warn you, the images of the crash are disturbing”; “Once again, a warning that the video we’re about to show you is difficult to watch.  And the outcome is just devastating.”; and “Our coverage contains video that is disturbing, but necessary to tell this story.”

In previous CBSC decisions, where warnings to viewers were given, the Panels have considered that there has been no breach of Article 6.3.  [See e.g. CTV re Canada AM (Airborne Hazing) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0159, March 12, 1996) and CTV Newsnet re a News Item (Hostage Murder in Riyadh) (CBSC Decision 03/04-1817, December 15, 2004).]  In another case, CTV re News Report (Police Shooting) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0213, March 26, 1996), the warning was given nine seconds into the story itself, and just seven seconds before the shooting of a driver by police, in a news item that was only 22 seconds long.  The Ontario Regional Panel found a breach; it was

concerned by the proximity of the warning to the video portion for which the alert was given.  Not only was the advisory not placed at the beginning of the news story, it was almost halfway through the segment and only 7 seconds before the actual shooting.  There was scarcely time for a viewer to respond to the warning before the shot was fired.

In the matter at hand, the Panel finds that each airing of the disturbing video was preceded by an explicit and personally-crafted warning that provided sufficient information to viewers to avoid watching the news item if they wished.

As to the repetition of the story, the Panel finds nothing excessive.  It was not played and replayed, first at full speed and then in slow motion, as was the case in certain programs that Panels have found in breach of Article 6.2 in the past.  [See e.g. CITY-TV re an episode of Hard Copy (CBSC Decision 96/97-0055, May 8, 1997), where the offending video clip was replayed nine times in a three-minute story; CICT-TV re a news report on the Tour de France (CBSC Decision 00/01-0982, January 14, 2002), where the Prairie Panel noted that the third replay in the news report was excessive, but that the clip itself was insufficiently problematic to constitute a violation; CICT-TV re a news update during Touched by an Angel (CBSC Decision 00/01-0985, January 14, 2002), where the same Panel ruled differently regarding the repetition of the same clip in a different program context; Talentvision re a News Report (Mainland China Murders) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0416+, May 3, 2002), where clips of the blood-soaked apartment were shown four times in the news story; and Global Television re a segment on an episode of Entertainment Tonight (CBSC Decision 05/06-1525, January 8, 2007), where the offending clip was shown repeatedly.]

In conclusion, the National Conventional Television Panel finds no breach of any of the above-cited provisions of Article 6 of the CAB Violence Code.

A Further Thought re the Use of Advisories

In their deliberations, the Adjudicators suggested that broadcasters might usefully consider the use of video advisories in some form in such instances in future.  Whether as a crawl along the bottom of the screen or in some other format, the Adjudicators pointed out that there are occasionally circumstances in which television audio may be inaudible or may not be turned on at all.  In such cases, a video alert could be of assistance in informing viewers of potentially problematic video footage soon to follow.  While the Panel is unaware of broadcasters having employed a journalistic video advisory accompanying the required audio one more than on rare occasions, it thought it potentially useful to make such a suggestion.  The Panel hastens to add that there is no codified requirement to do so.  Nor is the Panel recommending that one be introduced.  It merely raises the point, as broadcasters frequently look for additional ways of being helpful to their audiences.

Any Offence to the Dignity of the Deceased?

The CBSC has only twice considered the issue of respect for the dignity of a dying individual.  In one of these instances, namely, CTV re a News Report on Charles Ng’s Sentencing (CBSC Decision 98/99-1120, March 22, 2000), the Ontario Regional Panel considered a complaint concerning a news report on the sentencing of Charles Ng, the notorious serial killer who, four months earlier, had been found guilty of the 1984 and 1985 murders of 11 individuals.  The item, broadcast during the 11:00 pm National News, included a video clip of about seven seconds in length which showed either Ng or his accomplice beginning to cut the blouse of one of the female victims who was at that moment tied helplessly to a chair.  The Panel found that the inclusion of the video segment, while not an invasion of privacy, constituted “a significant affront to the dignity of the soon-to-be tortured, assaulted and murdered young woman” and thus was in breach of Article 4 of the RTNDA Code.  In the other instance, namely, CHAN-TV (BCTV) re Newscast (Toronto Subway Death) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0383, May 20, 1998), the B.C. Regional Panel dealt with a news item on a Toronto subway murder which aired on the station’s 6:00 pm newscast.  The report had included “a close view of the dying but still partly conscious woman’s bloodstained face”.  The Panel found that the inclusion of a close-up of the lacerated and bloody face of the victim in the last moments of her life failed to respect the dignity of the victim, as required by the RTNDA Code.  It concluded

that the inclusion of a close-up of the lacerated and bloody face of the victim in the last moments of her life in the report failed to respect the dignity of the victim.  In the Council’s view, there is a distinction to be made with respect to showing other less readily identifiable parts of a person’s body, such as arms, legs, torso, etc. and showing the victim’s face.  It is not so much an issue of the identification of the individual (especially in this case where the victim had been named) as it is an issue of identification of pain, agony, distress, even distortion of the individual, in short, an affront to the dignity, if not the privacy, of the victim and her family and friends.

In the matter at hand, the Panel considers that the video clip (from the moment the luger was thrown off the track) included none of the personalized elements central to the foregoing two decisions.  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 far more detached and impersonally presented, raising none of the concerns of those two previous decisions.  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.  The Panel finds no breach of Article 4 of the RTNDA Code on account of that choice.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Council’s Panels assess the broadcaster’s responsiveness to the complainant.  In the present instance, the Panel finds that the responses of the broadcaster’s Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, focussed directly on the issue that concerned the complainants.  Indeed, he reviewed the broadcasts and the weighing of the issues considered by CTV before airing the video clip.  While the complainants clearly did not share the broadcaster’s perspective, that is their right and the reason for which any complaint file is ultimately referred to a CBSC Panel for adjudication.  In the end, it is the thoughtfulness of the response that determines whether the broadcaster has met the CBSC membership responsibility of responsiveness, and the Panel considers that CTV has fully met that membership obligation in this instance.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.