Fox News crosses unspoken boundary
Journalism’s collective struggle to report on suicide
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Shepard Smith lives for a good car chase.
The boyish enthusiasm of the Fox News anchor is palpable whenever he narrates flyover camera shots of highway car chases, slinging an array of phrases like “truck can’t go no mo’” and yelling at producers to take down screen banners to see the full shot.
How quickly he has to switch back to adult mode, though, when something goes wrong. Friday’s “Studio B With Shepard Smith” took a turn for the worst when during a live chase, the driver got out of his vehicle and shot himself in the head. The feed was cut and sent to commercial; Smith was noticeably shaken as he issued an apology to the audience after the break.
Suicide is one of the most difficult subjects to cover in journalism. It requires the reporter to deal with overwhelming issue sensitivity while still properly and respectfully covering the story.
This particular incident has reopened old wounds for some and older discussions for others. It’s an unspoken rule not to show suicide but still has an infamous history of being poorly reported. There is an absolutely necessity for change in the way violence, especially suicide, is covered.
In this field, we’re supposed to be objective and unbiased and show everything. In theory, by censoring death, it’s a bias – we’re making the decision that although we’ve seen the further truth, we will hide it away from the public.
We work hard to broadcast anything and everything to show the public the facts. However, this is one of the only instances where we are supposed to censor people.
In his apology, Smith said: “That didn’t belong on TV. Sometimes we see a lot of things that we don’t let get to you because it’s not time appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong … and that was wrong.”
It’s commendable of him to make this point, and it’s one all journalists should be making. These are moments that won’t and can’t escape the memory. The father who loses his son will never be able to sleep without thoughts of him, and in turn, the journalist who talks to the father will never be able to shake the sound of his sobbing mid-interview. The footage can’t be unseen and in the technological age, it can’t be deleted either.
In 1987, Pennsylvania State Senator R. Budd Dwyer committed suicide during a live press conference following a bribery scandal and conviction. Despite being potentially scarring, the cameras kept rolling. Several stations re-broadcast the footage in full without warning to audiences. A quarter of a century later, over 100,000 videos of it can be found with one quick Google search.
There’s such an importance to bring you the news that a suicide like Dwyer’s can’t be avoided, especially as a high profile case. But there’s no reason to exploit the death of a civilian if you’re not using the death to somehow serve the story.
The rule of thumb has always been if it doesn’t make you sick over breakfast, it’s fine to air. The trick is figuring out everybody’s different level of sensitivity. The reaction to Fox’s gaffe says far too much about what we’ve become as a people – too many were quick to indignantly declare that it wasn’t a big deal or wasn’t even “bad.” That’s the level of desensitivity the country has reached – a live suicide isn’t “that bad.” After all, you couldn’t even see any blood.
This doesn’t pass the “breakfast test” because people don’t want to feel that uncomfortable while they’re reading or watching the news. Showing the public something it would never want to see is the last thing a journalist should aim for, and Fox dropped the ball on that.
The focus shouldn’t be on that last moment but on every moment before it. Journalists have the power to create beautiful tributes to the lives lost – no matter the reason – and that’s a far more important direction. No one should ever have to be immortalized by death, and journalists need to make it their job to ensure that doesn’t happen.