Editorial: Viewers and violence: A love affair

On Friday, a dangerous and long-winded car pursuit ended in a live suicide. The “erratic” assailant, after leading police on a dangerous chase, got out of his car and went off-road on a dirt path. He swiftly took out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Fox News reporter Shepherd Smith exclaimed, “Get off it! Get off it! Get off it!” Fox News immediately went to commercial. After the commercial, Smith said that there was a five-second delay so those in the studio could see “what was happening five seconds before (viewers) did.” “If anything went horribly wrong,” Smith said, Fox would be able to “cut away from it without subjecting (viewers) to it.” Smith admitted that those in the studio at Fox News really “messed up.” The suspect’s suicide “didn’t belong on TV.”

The televised suicide is leaving viewers wondering what happened and questioning the precautions Fox took to prevent the suicide from appearing on live TV. Despite the tragedy, Fox isn’t receiving as much criticism for the glitch in judgment. Remember how viewers reacted during Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction or when M.I.A. gave the middle finger to another Super Bowl audience? Or how about that time Bono said “f—k” in an acceptance speech during the Golden Globe awards ceremony?

It’s hard to determine if Fox’s slip was a lapse in journalism ethics or if they were simply dumbfounded by the events unfolding before them. Perhaps the producers or those present in the studio failed to work quickly enough and sat just as immobilized as the rest of us were when the suspect shot himself to death on national TV. Like us, Shepherd and those at Fox were driven by the next chain of events. The question remains: Is this an indicator of Fox’s extreme insensitivity or extreme incompetence?

Or what about Joshua Shane, the ASU student who went missing after a late-night swim in Thailand last year? The Huffington Post had a slideshow of the ASU student in a body bag. Can we accuse The Huffington Post of extreme insensitivity or extreme incompetence? Perhaps the difference between the two cases is as simple as the difference in medium.

Because television watching remains a passive experience, viewers who receive stimuli can be unprepared to experience shocking footage or explicit material. Because the Internet is largely unregulated, users understand the visual risks they take when they log online. They might be offended by a vulgar ad for a pornography site. Users who choose to leave comments on political sites or even YouTube videos know that their comments are subject to viscous scrutiny and ruthless trolling.

Fortunately for Fox, CBS and The Huffington Post, their insensitive choices don’t always lose readers or watchers. The newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” stems from audiences fascinated with violence. Until viewers change what they want, news organizations will show first and apologize later.


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