Live coverage of a car chase on Fox News turned into a grisly spectacle Friday afternoon when the suspect got out of his car, stumbled down a hillside, pulled a gun, and shot himself in the head. As the scene unfolded, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith grew increasingly apprehensive, then yelled “get off it, get off it!”, belatedly urging the show’s producers to stop the live feed as it became obvious the man was going to do something rash. The station cut awkwardly to a commercial just after showing his death.
After Fox aired the on-air suicide, Smith apologized to viewers, saying, “We really messed up.” Another news outfit, though, seemed less tortured about its decision to publicize the snuff film. BuzzFeed immediately posted the footage on YouTube, where it garnered more than 1,000 “likes” in under an hour. “Here’s the video of that car chase suicide aired by Fox News,” tweeted Dorsey Shaw, who makes videos and gifs for Buzzfeed. BuzzFeed’s official account quickly retweeted it, and it began to make the rounds. (And to be fair, it wasn’t just BuzzFeed. Gawker subsequently posted the video on its site as well, as did the blog Mediaite, and the Drudge Report initially linked to BuzzFeed’s post, though it soon changed its top link to Smith’s apology.)
The site’s decision to post and share the clip sparked immediate blowback. “Why is Buzzfeed sharing a suicide video? C’mon guys,” tweeted Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa. The Columbia Journalism Review chimed in, tweeting, “Who's worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @BuzzFeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?” Andrew Kaczynski, a BuzzFeed political reporter, fired back: “@CJR I prefer your whiny usually incorrect long form analysis pieces over your instant judgement.”
Others, including Slate’s own Farhad Manjoo, defended the site. “I'm with @BuzzFeed. People are talking about a thing on Twitter. Posting stuff people are talking about is what BF does. This is their job,” Manjoo tweeted.
I’m not linking to the video here, which betrays my own views as to whether it’s right to broadcast footage of a non-public figure committing suicide. Research suggests that graphic depictions of suicide in the media can spur copycat suicides, especially among young people, and the World Health Organization’s guidelines warn against sensationalizing it. Virtually everyone who has studied it agrees that, at a minimum, suicides should be covered with a modicum of sensitivity and context. BuzzFeed exhibited neither.
And to Manjoo’s tweet that it’s BuzzFeed’s job to post stuff that people are talking about, I replied, “So if people are talking about child porn… ?” He responded that of course you have to use some judgment, “but this was a news event, I think.” (He also pointed out that the video might violate YouTube’s community guidelines, which say, “If your video shows someone being physically hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don't post it.”)
I emailed Ashley McCollum, BuzzFeed’s press manager, and she said essentially the same thing as Manjoo. Her statement:
Making an editorial decision on how to cover a sensitive, tragic news event like this is never an easy one. But it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization. We posted both an edited version and the full version and we respect our readers' judgment.
Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan penned a similar defense, calling his site’s decision to post the video “ethical,” because “it is news.”
Of course it’s news that Fox News accidentally aired the video. And you can make a good case that Fox was inviting this type of debacle with its habit of airing live car-chase feeds. But Fox couldn’t have known that it was about to air a suicide. BuzzFeed, by contrast, knew exactly what it was doing. By posting the clip on YouTube (and on its own site) and tweeting it out for the world to see, it ensured that footage of a man killing himself would reach orders of magnitude more people than it would have otherwise. That might be good business for BuzzFeed, but it’s hard to see the benefit for anyone else.