Live Suicide on Fox Puts Focus on Ethics of Breaking News

Aidan White

The tantalizing jump in ratings that comes with broadcasting real life drama can be addictive and painful. Fox News has discovered this in the controversy following its broadcast last week of live footage of a man in Arizona shooting himself.

Not surprisingly the incident has angered the family of the victim but it was only the latest editorial atrocity committed as a result of American television’s obsession with live Breaking News.

Three years ago viewers in California also had their programming interrupted to bring viewers footage of a deranged man setting fire to his car on a motorway. He, too, shot himself on live television. In that case, there were sharp protests from viewers, particularly parents, appalled that news directors on local television networks broke into late afternoon programmes – prime television time for children just home from school – to broadcast live coverage of the incident.

These cases highlight why broadcasters need to apply strict rules on live film to anticipate acts of violence that may shock and distress viewers. Car chases are unpredictable and may be expected to end dramatically – this is what peaks the interest of viewers in the first place – but even the most peaceful live performance can turn into a horror show. That’s what happened in 1974 when Florida television presenter Christine Chubbuck killed herself while on air.

Going live at any time is potentially hazardous, so broadcasters need to be constantly alert to the possibility of the unexpected and shocking incident.

They need to consider the timing of the broadcast, the likely impact on the audience and, most importantly, the amount of time needed to make the judgement call about whether the material is suitable for broadcasting.

In fact, of course, “live news” is nothing of the sort. Reputable broadcasters routinely apply strict rules to delay broadcast of potentially shocking or disturbing material.These controls particularly affect war reporting or when journalists are covering a natural disaster when the likelihood of disturbing images or a sudden act of violence is greater.

In the Fox News case it appears that a 5-second delay was in force, but questions may be asked whether such a brief pause is long enough for credible and professional reflection.

Not surprisingly, the short delay was hopelessly inadequate. There was no time to kill the feed and viewers witnessed desperate efforts by the distraught presenter to stop the film when he saw where the story was leading.

Regrettably these sorts of incidents are more likely to happen when news organisations are in furious competition for good ratings. A prime example was seen on Pakistan television in January this year in coverage by the country’s 27 national 24-news channels of a plane crash outside Islamabad.

Some reporters arrived on the scene before the emergency services. Within minutes viewers were treated to the unsavoury sight of reporters picking their way through dead and broken bodies in the midst of the smoking wreckage.

While some applied simple rules of decency to ensure cameras were filming at a fixed height, avoiding close-ups of body parts at the scene, most of the networks  willfully broadcast vivid and gruesome images of death and destruction on a continuous loop, some of it accompanied by inaccurate ticker information about the numbers of dead.

After many complaints 17 networks were condemned by the country’s broadcasting regulator, PEMRA, a largely ineffective and not widely-respected state agency. But few observers think it will not happen again.

These incidents illustrate why media should be open and honest about the policies and practice they apply to breaking news. They should admit that live news is not always what it appears to be.

Telling the viewers that what they see is immediate, but has been subject to sensible and professional editing will do no harm, but it can build trust and ease the fears that media are sacrificing their duty to inform in pursuit of sensationalism or, even worse, that they are ready to exploit human suffering for commercial gain.