Hyperbolic to sensitive, how news outlets treated dramatic car crash video

The 55-second cell-phone video of an SUV going the wrong way on the Interstate, smashing into a sedan and exploding into a fiery ball that killed five people quickly sky-rocketed to one of the most viewed videos ever on the Tampa Bay Times’ website. It’s also a case study to examine how different newsrooms treat difficult content.

The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, ran the whole video, unedited, along with the sound. The Tampa Tribune ran the video without the sound. WTSP and WFLA used small portions of the video in a package, but then stopped using it, as did Fox 13. ABC Action News used a tight clip of the video in two packages. Bay News 9 ran the video but truncated it before the crash.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the car crash video had 66,000 views on the Times’ site and another 154,000 views through a news network, said Anne Glover, digital content editor.

That’s well over the average video on the site, Glover said. “For us, 4,000 views is good.”

Tampa resident 19-year-old Jada Wright recorded the video on her smart phone out her driver’s side window, while traveling parallel to the driver on the right side of I-275. She posted it to her Facebook page and every news organization in Tampa Bay tracked down a copy of the video and made different choices about how to use it.

A reader first posted a link to Wright’s video in the comments section of the first story the Times ran on Sunday morning, Glover said. Senior News Researcher John Martin downloaded the video quickly and passed it along to web staff who imported it into Final Cut and bleeped out the cuss words. While reporters were trying to reach Wright, Glover weighed in from home.

“I told them to post it,” Glover said. “I felt really confident that this was fair use, that it was posted on a public page, and that it was important to the story. I told them to keep trying to reach her.” (For more information on fair use, see this guide for journalists.)

Wright, who never did return calls to the Times, has since taken the video down from her Facebook page and set it to private.

The power of the video has as much to do with Wright’s commentary and reaction to the crash as the drama of the images. At first she is incredulous, wondering out loud what she is seeing. She pans the camera to the road in front of her, then back out her driver’s window, going slightly slower than the wrong-way driver. As the crash and the explosion happen, she screams and jostles the phone, pointing it toward her dashboard, which shows her speedometer at 70 m.p.h.

For The Times, the first concern was ensuring it was authentic. Glover asked her staff to slow it down and look for landmarks or other evidence that it was the actual crash in question.

Although some newsrooms have prohibitions of showing videos that document the moment of death, Glover said she had faced that same question earlier in the week when the video of a retired cop shooting a fellow movie-theater patron was shown in court.

Neither the theater video nor the crash video is graphic or gory, Glover said. You don’t see the victims in either video. “So I felt pretty confident that this was within our standards,” she said during a phone interview.

“That video was so dramatic,” Glover said. “It did what journalism is supposed to do. It showed you exactly what happened.”

Another motivation for every website is financial. Glover said high traffic volume videos bring in ad revenue. And dramatic news video reliably gets lots of traffic.

Across the Bay, at the Tampa Tribune, editors were concerned with the profanity in the audio. After viewing the video, editors opted to use the full video, but not the audio.

“The video was so powerful and told the story, even without the audio. Our readers could see for themselves what happened,” wrote Clarisa Gerlach, news editor at TBO.com. Like Glover, she said she felt comfortable using the video because it had been shared so many times on Facebook.

The television stations in the market were more cautious in their use of the video. WTSP News Director Peter Roghaar explained his station’s approach in an email.

“The weekend on-call manager and News Director reviewed the video and determined we would use the video only in the context of the story showing what happened,” he wrote. “A warning would be given prior to airing that the video was graphic. We would not air the natural sound audio of Ms Wright screaming when the cars collided. We would not use the video in promotion, headlines or studio monitors.”

Other websites not connected to Tampa Bay played the video for maximum impact.

The Blaze ran the video and separated out several stills, along with this headline: ‘Oh My God! Oh My God!’: Cellphone Video Captures the Horrific Moment a Car Driving the Wrong Way Causes Fiery Head-on Collision.

The UK’s Daily Mail employed a similar treatment.

Along with The Times, The Blaze and the Daily Mail routinely came up at the top of Google search this week for the words “wrong-way crash video.”

Raw video of dramatic events will drive traffic. A third recent high volume video for The Tampa Bay Times was a 4-minute video of a teacher’s futile effort to regain control of her classroom and prevent a fight at Gibbs High School.

There is no one answer or method to solving the questions around such videos. As we see in the car-crash example, each newsroom might place a priority on a different value. The Times wanted its audience to see and hear the full event. The Tribune shielded its audience from Wright’s painful reaction. Bay News 9 avoided the moment of death out of sensitivity to the audience and the victim’s families. WTSP, Fox 13 and ABC Action News used small portions of the video in broader stories, to minimize the shock.

Coming up with an alternative that best serves your audience requires a process. Here are some questions journalists should ask when faced with raw video from a dramatic event:

  • Who shot it and can we get permission to use it?
  • Can we verify the time and place?
  • What journalistic purpose does the video serve?
  • Who is harmed by the wide distribution of the video?
  • What alternatives (editing, eliminating sound, using still frames) could minimize that harm?
  • How can we explain our decisions to the audience and enter into a conversation?
  • What can we do to prepare people to view the video?
  • What are we doing in the production to draw more attention to the video. In using words like “shocking” or “disturbing,” are we genuinely  trying to communicate, or are we secretly trying to drive traffic?
  • If we really believe in our journalistic purpose, what other reporting must we do to support that purpose, either now or in the future?

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracyYou can find more information about the book here.

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  • danwoog

    Is there any discussion of the wisdom of a driver shooting a video while driving at 70 mph? In Connecticut, any cellphone use by a driver is illegal. I’m assuming in Florida it’s fine.