Shep Smith Apologizes After Fox News Airs a Suicide
A carjacking suspect being chased by police in Phoenix suddenly got out of the car and shot himself on live television, prompting Fox News's Shepard Smith to apologize after the network aired the footage.
A carjacking suspect being chased by police in Phoenix suddenly got out of the car and shot himself on live television, prompting Fox News's Shepard Smith to apologize after the network aired the footage. We tuned in in time to hear Smith's apology: "I personally apologize for letting that happen," Smith said. "That was wrong, that wouldn’t happen again on my watch, and I’m sorry." According to Reuters' Matthew Keys, Fox had the chase on a delay, but didn't have the delay working when the suicide happened (Update: Smith's full apology and explanation is below). Local Arizona news station KTAR has an early report on what happened:
The suspect, wearing a black football jersey and black pants, exited the car in a field. He was carrying a gun. The suspect ran a short distance away and appeared to shoot himself in the head.
We're not going to link to video of the suicide, but here's Smith's apology:
Update: Now, when covering the fact that Fox News showed this questionable footage, the question becomes whether it's appropriate to share that footage. Buzzfeed shared the video on its Twitter stream, but the video doesn't appear to be on the main site. Mediaite posted the video to its site with a warning: "The below video is extremely graphic. Viewer discretion strongly advised." But the Columbia Journalism Review took Buzzfeed to task for re-posting the footage, which was the thing Fox News was apologizing for in the first place:
Who's worse? @foxnews for airing the suicide, or @buzzfeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?— Columbia Jrn Review (@CJR) September 28, 2012
The problem with covering suicides is that it can be exploitative and it can encourage others to follow suit. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidelines for covering suicides (PDF), urging journalists to stay away from sensationalism and to avoid publishing photos of victims' grieving relatives, the scene of the incident, and the method of death. The Radio Television Digital News Association also lists guidelines, advising producers to "Consider not using the photo of the person who killed him/herself. It will make the suicide less glamorous to someone considering imitating the act."
Update (4:37 p.m. EDT): Here's a transcript of Smith's full apology and the explanation he gave after Fox aired the footage. Seconds after the suspect fell, the camera cut to Smith yelling "get off it, get off it," then the network went to commercial. When they came back, this is what Smith said:
We’ve got some explaining to do. While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live, when the guy pulled over and got out of the vehicle, we went on delay, so that we would see what happened five seconds before you did, so that if anything went horribly wrong, we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you to it. And we really messed up. We’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV. We took every precaution we knew how to take to prevent that from being on TV, and I personally apologize to you that that happened.
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. And that won’t happen again on my watch, and I’m sorry. We’ll update you with what happened with that guy, and what went wrong, tonight on the Fox report. I’m sorry.
Update (4:55 p.m. EDT): Youtube took the video down, according to Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski:
YouTube takes down the car chase shooting video: "YouTube is not a shock site."— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) September 28, 2012
Update (5:09 p.m. EDT): Politico's Dylan Byers posted Buzzfeed's statement on its decision to post the video, per spokesperson Ashley McCollom:
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 also posted the video, and in a follow-up post Hamilton Nolan explained that site's decision to go ahead with it:
A word on our decision to run the Fox News clip: some Gawker staffers were against publishing the clip. My position was that it is clearly news, and that we should run it on that basis. When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news. It is unpleasant, but it is news. You may legitimately decide to watch it or not, but it is news. (And for those who think this is all a cynical page view ploy, a cute cat video will do better than a gruesome suicide video; it's also a far easier choice not to publish something like this, just to spare yourself the negative outcry.) When we start picking and choosing whether or not we run clearly newsworthy things based on whether or not they make us queasy, we're in slippery slope territory. It is, in my opinion, ethical to run the clip. (Some of my colleagues may still disagree.)
Update (5:26 p.m. EDT): The video's back up on YouTube, per Kaczynskki:
YouTube has reinstated the Fox car chase shooting video with a disclaimer for those under 18.— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) September 28, 2012
Update (5:31 p.m. EDT): Byers has Fox News's statement on the incident:
We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five second delay. Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.
Update (8:30 p.m. EDT): Fox News sends along a statement from Executive Vice President, News, Michael Clemente:
“We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five second delay. Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.”