Commentary: Olympic Luger’s Death Tests Limits of Media’s Bloodlust

by | February 15, 2010 at 6:07 PM | TV News

Olympic Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili (Photo: AP)

Olympic Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili (Photo: AP)

By now millions have people have seen the unsettling video of Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death. Within minutes of the Georgian luger’s fatal accident, video began circulating on the Web and, eventually, the network news. Most outlets offered viewers or readers a warning of the video’s graphic content. If it was so graphic, why show it at all? And, more important, why has NBC now issued an edict prohibiting the video’s broadcast? Because the footage has served its purpose? Hardly.

Papers and networks thrive on our morbid curiosity and sensationalism, which explains why all major American outlets – and their countless international peers – felt compelled to air video of the 21-year-old athlete’s test run, which ended with him veering off-course and into a steel barrier. A promising life was snuffed out in an instant, the Olympic community went into shock and soon officials were playing the blame game.

The International Luge Federation and the Vancouver Organizing Committee somewhat callously blamed Kumaritashvili’s death on human error: “It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16. This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident.”

Everyone from Diane Sawyer to Brian Williams warned of the death video’s disturbing nature, yet went on to show it again, and again, and again, sometimes even in slow motion. And then, despite the obvious — and already determined — fact that the blow had killed Kumaritashvili, there was footage of rescue workers attempting to revive him.

News outlets feasted on the bloodletting. NBC, which has spent millions for the Olympics and its related footage, claims they found the event newsworthy enough to share video with rival networks. Said a spokesman, “We released the footage because this was a significant news event.” Is it so significant that this man’s last moments have to be broadcast across the entire globe? Well, it was – and the public apparently had an appetite for this destruction.

Even on Monday, “luger who died video” remains the number two Google search. Those fateful final moments have superseded the victim’s identity itself, a telling example of how people gravitate toward tragedy, especially when there’s evidence. Despite all the attention – or, perhaps, because of it – NBC has now issued an edict prohibiting its various franchises from airing the footage.

NBC News president Steve Capus told his staff, and NBC Sports, that the video should no longer be aired in conjunction with the story. A flack told TVNewser, “NBC News handled the video of the luge accident with the utmost sensitivity. As we have done in the past, we felt the story had reached a point where it was no longer necessary to show the video when reporting on this tragic story.” This raises an important question: When does tragedy go from being voyeuristic to respectable?

The news value of Kumaritashvili’s death has now been spent. The video has been aired … and now comes the outrage. Cheryl Phillips from the Examiner notes, “To see the top trending articles on the Web use titles such as “Luge death crash videos finally released” and “Olympic death video: see it here” is disturbing beyond words.” Indeed.

And, more than that, it’s devastating to Kumaritashvili’s family. His father issued a statement insisting, “I can’t and I won’t see the footage of my son’s last minutes.” Now that the shock and awe have worn off, the spectacle of this tragic event has subsided. The public’s appetite for destruction has been satiated and, as is its nature, the news cycle has moved on.

Yet, it’s doubtful Kumaritashvili’s will provide a journalistic lesson. It’s been nearly a decade since the 9/11 attacks, yet new pictures continue to be released. It’s a simple lesson in supply and demand: we demand the truth, gory details and all, to judge for ourselves, and media outlets provide it readily, making them look just as macabre as the viewers they entertain.