Media should err on side of caution when it comes to airing death

Getty Images

It’s one of the tougher calls any broadcast news network has to make: To show or now show on the air someone at the moment of their death.

That was the conundrum CNN, Fox News and MSNBC faced on Monday after video became available of the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov at a museum in Turkey. 

{mosads} Video showed Karlov standing behind a podium about to make remarks to a small ceremonial gathering before eight shots ring out. A viewer can see Karlov grimace in pain upon being struck before quickly falling to the ground. Several more shots can be heard before a cameraman filming the event zooms out to show the assassin, who was dressed in black suit and tie as a bodyguard. After screaming things like “Remember Aleppo!” and “Allahu akbar!” he would eventually be killed in a gunfight with Turkish Special Forces.


Many newspapers — including the Washington Post, showed a photo the ambassador on his back with the gunman clearly seen in the background. 

CNN was first to air the video. John Berman, a veteran newsman formerly of ABC now serving as a daytime anchor on CNN, warned viewers twice that it was “very disturbing” and “very graphic.”

“We do want to play it so you get a sense of exactly what happened inside that art gallery and the horror that took place just a short time ago,” Berman said.

Over at Fox News, a decision was made not to air the video. Instead, its news division opted for still photos of the gunman holding up his gun with Karlov’s body on the floor. Other photos only showed the gunman. Various anchors and hosts described the scene from there.

MSNBC showed footage of the instant Karlov was struck before using a jump-cut edit to a few second later of the gunman in a post-shooting rant. A disclaimer around the video being very graphic was also provided.

So which network ultimately made the right call?

First, let’s answer that question with a hypothetical question:

If an American or ambassador was shot eight times and killed with cameras rolling, would the same decision to show the footage have been made?

The situation hearkens back to a similar situation in February of 2015. A Jordanian pilot had been captured and caged by ISIS. He was then doused in gasoline and lit on fire.

The terror group — as it often does in its twisted effort to bolster recruitment — filmed the whole thing. Even 22 months later, it is the type of image that never goes away upon absorbing it.

In a different decision than it made with the Russian ambassador, Fox News decided to show the photos of the video footage.

“Tonight we are going to show you some of the images ISIS has put out from a long slickly-produced video,” Bret Baier began on his evening program, “Special Report.”

“The images are brutal, they are graphic, they are upsetting. You may want to turn away,” he warned. “You may want to have the children leave the room right now.”

Baier continued: “The reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such. We feel you need to see it so we will put up one of the images on your screen right now.”

Fox received some criticism for the decision, even from CNN International’s Tony Maddox, who serves as executive vice president and managing director of the network.

Maddox said CNNi would never show hostages “at the point of death” because there’s “absolutely no editorial justification” for doing such a thing.

That’s not to say Maddox is beng hypocritical here since this is a decision made in-a-case-by-case basis.

In the case of the Russian ambassador, there is no blood that can be seen. He quickly falls to the ground. It’s still a horrible thing to watch, but nothing compared to seeing images of a man being burned alive while helpless in a steel cage.

Baier’s point was one hotly debated at the time: In order to understand the evil of a group like ISIS, underscoring its ruthlessness and disregard for human life by killing those captured in one of the most horrible ways possible needed to be shared.

But whether it’s 6:00 in the evening — as was the case with Fox and the Jordanian pilot — or at 12:30 p.m. as in CNN’s case on Monday, one factor needs to be considered:

Young children could be watching along with their mother or father. There is a responsibility around that aspect as well. Despite the warnings of graphic video, is that enough? And even for adults, is watching a person get murdered on television over the line as well?

The answer is ultimately subjective. Some would argue violence in American cinema is far worse and more prevalent than almost any non-fictional event the U.S. media shows on a newscast, while others would say that showing shocking footage is only an irresponsible ploy to draw viewers in for all the wrong reasons.

In the end, at least from this humble perspective, a story can be readily and responsibly told without graphic, disturbing, uncut video to go along with it.

Erring on the side of caution should be the rule going forward.

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Joe Concha media

More Media News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video