March 9, 2010

You can learn from the tight spot that Orlando news media outlets have found themselves in.

Newsrooms might soon be able to to get their hands on SeaWorld security camera video of a killer whale attack that killed a trainer a couple of weeks ago. SeaWorld turned the video over to investigators, and when the investigation is over, the video could become public. The victim’s family wants a judge to block the release. My colleague Kelly McBride has written about why it’s important to fight for access to the video.

Florida has a strong open records law, so it is not beyond imagination that the video could go public. But even if that happens, I think newsrooms should set the bar high before releasing it.

Reasons to run the video might include these unlikely scenarios:

  • The video shows some discrepancy between what SeaWorld says and what actually took place.
  • The video shows a systemic breakdown that compromised public safety.
  • The video reveals a coverup or a great truth that the public needs to know, and the video is the only real way of showing that truth.

These are not reasons to run the video:

  • We spent a lot of money on lawyers to get it.
  • Other media have the video and plan to run it.
  • It is “out there,” so why not?
  • We will run it on the Web, because “anything goes” in cyberspace.
  • “Hey, it’s open record.”
  • “It’s interesting and people are free not to watch it.”

Consider these other factors:

  • How will you explain using or not using the video to the public? To the family? To the newsroom?
  • What rules or guidelines does your newsroom have about using graphic or disturbing images?
  • How will you warn the public about what they will see? Online, you might consider a warning slide that the user would have to click through to get to the video.
  • Are you showing everything a viewer would need to see to understand the situation? What came before and after the clip?
  • Even if you find the video newsworthy, how do you limit its use in headlines, teases, promos and file video that could air on future newscasts?
  • Is the video clear and conclusive?
  • What are the short-term and long-term consequences to SeaWorld? To the family? To the station?

I would also remind myself that this video is from a private security camera, not a government one. It is different from watching dashboard cams from police cars. The public has a stronger need to see what the government is up to on our behalf.

Also, remember that nobody has been accused of a crime.

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The victim’s family does not seem to be searching for answers or seeking justice. If the family were turning to the media to press for answers, it might be a very different issue, one of “holding the powerful accountable and giving voice to the voiceless.”

I am in favor of journalists pressing to see the video. I just hope they have the good sense and good taste to leave it alone if the video does not prove to be more than simply shocking.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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