The first few days of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have been marred by serious, gruesome-looking injuries. On Saturday, August 6, French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd broke his leg while attempting a vault during the men’s qualification round. The following day, Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten crashed head-first into a curb during the women’s road race, resulting in several spinal fractures.
I watched both of these injuries happen live: Aït Saïd’s over an Internet stream, van Vleuten’s on the local NBC affiliate. After the initial shock and revulsion had passed, a question began to bite at me: what is the appropriate way to cover such injuries when they occur on a live broadcast? Given the inherent risk of physical injury in sports, and the inherent uncertainties of broadcasting events live, this is a question of some significance.
Broadcasters appear to face two conflicting imperatives. On the one hand, we expect that a sports broadcast will present an accurate (and often total) account of the event; on the other hand, we expect that broadcasters will maintain “good taste” — that they will not exploit the misery of participants or spectators (beyond, one might clarify, the misery that comes with defeat).
In most instances, these two imperatives do not come into conflict. Even in violent sports such as American football and ice hockey, the injuries players suffer do not generally inspire shock and revulsion. Concern and pity, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary. Thus, during most games, media outlets can broadcast the events in their entirety, injuries included, without ethical worries.
But sometimes, unexpectedly, a player with sustain a gruesome injury, either as a tragic part of normal play (e.g., Joe Thiesmann’s compound-fractured leg on Monday Night Football) or as a result of a violent infraction of the rules (e.g., Steve Moore’s broken neck at the hands of Todd Bertuzzi). Such injuries inspire immediate revulsion, disrupting the constructed narrative of the sporting event and, oftentimes, the event itself. In these scenarios, the imperatives of accuracy and good taste do come into conflict. How, then, should this conflict be resolved?
The Aït Saïd and van Vleuten incidents offer two different possible solutions. In the case of Aït Saïd, the broadcast strategy was to avoid showing the aftermath of the failed vault, once the extent of the fracture became clear. The camera quickly cut away from the scene, and they did not show replays of the failed vault. When the broadcast did return to the scene, it was always in the context of Aït Saïd receiving medical attention, framed in a manner which concealed the severity of his injury.
In the case of van Vleuten, the broadcast team was more willing to dwell on the fateful crash. This was in spite of the fact that the site of the crash, unlike the site of Aït’s Saïd’s, did not have a dedicated camera, indicating a degree of choice on the part of the broadcast. Not only did the broadcast show replays of the collision, but the commentators continued to discuss van Vleuten’s injury for the remainder of race. relaying information regarding her condition.
So which is preferable: drawing coverage away from the injury, or making the injury a feature of the sporting narrative? They are markedly different, but I will say that in their respective moments both approaches felt reasonable.
One must remember that the two injuries happened in different contexts. Aït Saïd’s broken leg did not impact the outcome or proceedings of the qualification round. He was a relatively marginal figure in the competition (though he would have qualified for the rings final), and there were five other apparatuses the broadcast team needed to cover. Even if the broadcast wanted to dwell on his injuries, there might have been too much going on to do so.
Contrast this with the road race: van Vleuten was nearing the final stretch, leading by a significant margin. Her crash completely altered the medal situation, giving four other cyclists behind her a chance at gold. Further, in covering the progress of the race, the broadcast team had to film the other cyclists passing the scene of the crash. Had van Vleuten’s injury happened earlier in the race, they’d have little cause to dwell on it.
This pragmatic variance does allow us to keep both the accuracy imperative and the good taste imperative. There might be a case for dropping one of the imperatives instead. Pain is pain, regardless of context, and adjusting the guidelines based on the competitive conditions of a game may well trivialize that pain. Yet a consistent response might well do the same, treating such human misery in a dispassionate manner.
In the messy world of live broadcast, perhaps pragmatism is the best that can be done.