When NBC kicked off its coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics on Friday night, it was with a much different introduction than originally planned. The broadcast started at 7:30 p.m. ET with a somber intro from Bob Costas and Matt Lauer that detailed the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvil earlier in the day. It was a respectful and necessary decision, but far from the triumphant opening sequence that was doubtlessly in the can.
After a brief description of the tragedy from Costas and Lauer, the pair sent it to NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who delivered a lengthy report on the death. At the start of the piece, Williams warned viewers that "the pictures are very tough for some people to watch," but he spoke for just a few more seconds before video of Kumaritashvili's final run began. So when the video opened with a shot of the 21-year-old waiting in the gate before his training run, it was a bit jarring. It became more so when the video jumped ahead to the horrific crash, which was shown in slow motion. Seconds later, a longer, slower shot was shown. A still photo of Kumaritashvili receiving CPR was also broadcast. During the eight-minute report that opened the show, NBC showed the crash three times, the final two of which lingered on shots of the Georgian's body.
Other than the initial airing of the video, everything else seemed gratuitous. Showing Kumaritashvili in the gate 48 seconds before his death was eerie, and the photo of him getting attended to by first responders was the definition of macabre. He was already dead. What is the news value in showing him futilely receiving CPR?
Though it's been written that airing the clip was a sensationalistic ratings grab, it was a perfectly acceptable decision (even if it's at 7:30 p.m. ET in a program geared toward family viewership). Still, it's safe to say that a vast majority of the 38 million Americans who were watching the Opening Ceremony hadn't yet seen the gruesome clip of Kumaritashvili flying off the course and crashing into a metal pole. Was a brief warning that suggested only "some people" would find it tough to see enough?
Before we vilify NBC, let's recognize that they were in a difficult spot. If they didn't show the video, people would be complaining that the network was protecting its asset (the Olympics) and not providing detailed coverage of an important story. That wouldn't be gratuitous, it would be bad journalism. Overall, the network handled a bad situation in a professional way.
NBC was right to cover the story, and showing the video was a necessary news decision. The network, which usually holds a tight grip on Olympic footage, even released the tape to other news organizations because "this was a significant news event." However, showing it three times at the beginning of coverage without an adequate warning and then airing a picture of a lifeless body getting medical attention was irresponsible.