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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    In journalism, minimizing harm doesn’t have to limit discussion

    A 90-minute police chase in Phoenix, which began when a man hijacked a car, ended with the suspect pulling off the highway into the desert, running from the vehicle and killing himself.

    While it is the media’s duty to report to the greatest extent possible, that responsibility coincides with the duty to minimize harm to all parties involved, even if that means limiting the audience’s access to the full story. Presenting a controversial or sensitive story in a limited way does not have to limit the discussion that results from the reporting.

    Viewers witnessed the suicide as Fox News broadcasted the footage live on national television, even while anchor Shepard Smith yelled, “Get off! Get off it!” several times.

    This fiasco was a failure on the part of Fox News to prevent the images from being broadcasted, even on a 5-second delay to a national audience.

    Viewers might say that the feed was justified for various reasons: The suspect, Jodon Romero, deserved to have his suicide broadcasted after hijacking the car he used during the chase from two people at gunpoint.

    Viewers who were offended should know that suicides happen, and if that happens on public television, they should be prepared for it — especially since they were watching the police chase in the first place.

    And yet, despite these arguments, it is a journalistic responsibility to know what to print, publish or broadcast.

    “That did not belong on TV,” Smith said immediately following the police chase. “We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV.”

    Smith went on to say that news broadcasters choose not to air some material because it is not time appropriate or because the material could be sensitive.

    One may argue that this is merely a tool employed by news organizations that are afraid to broadcast certain images for fear of offending a sanitized public, and that viewers should be exposed to the realities of violence.

    But on the contrary, an ethical principle that many journalists abide by is to “minimize harm,” as stated in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

    While the effects of crime and gun violence should not be watered down to be “considerate” of viewers, certain material, including suicides, have no place in public view.

    It serves only to sensationalize the death of the person who commits it.

    On one YouTube post, the two or three seconds where the actual suicide takes place is blacked out. Viewers were outraged ­— but not due to any lost “news value.”

    “WTF, you cut out the best part!” one poster complained.

    “Why does the video say Viewer Discretion Advised? It didn’t show anything. Lol,” another said.
    These two comments alone (and there are many more) demonstrate how an event like Romero’s suicide is sensationalized, rather than adding substance to the conversation.

    Additionally, there is no update on the condition Romero was in. He could have been too mentally incapacitated to make major decisions, including the decision to take his own life.

    This footage will not initiate social change, the way footage of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians being killed heightened public disapproval of the Vietnam War. It served no purpose but to shock its audience.

    Smith knew this, even though he and the news staff failed to react quickly enough to cut away from the image of Romero ending his own life. Smith made a sincere, remorseful apology to the audience who witnessed it.

    In the given situation, he chose to minimize harm, as he should have.

    _— Andres Dominguez is a senior studying journalism and political science. He can be reached at
    letters@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatOpinions._

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