Public outrage over a video showing NFL running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, along with his subsequent firing by the Baltimore Ravens, kept the grainy footage on an almost continual loop on television and online for the past week.
But some news networks apparently decided enough was enough. The Associated Press reported that six major networks – CNN, NBC, ABC, ESPN, Fox News and Fox Sports — said last Thursday they would pull the plug on showing the video, or at least tone down the reruns. The networks collectively aired the video 37 times in one hour last Tuesday, according to media watchdog group Media Matters for America.
That was one day after gossip website TMZ first posted the video of Rice assaulting Janay Rice, who is now Rice’s wife. The video shows her crashing to the elevator floor after he punched her, her head striking a bar on the way down, then Rice dragging her limp body through the elevator door.
Online news coverage of the violent video has run the gamut, with some news organizations exercising more restraint than others.
Some websites chose to show only an edited version, while others ran all three minutes and 34 seconds of the video. Most sites posted a “Warning” caption beforehand alerting readers to its graphic content. Others set the video to auto-play, so readers automatically saw the action when they loaded the page.
In a review of 18 national and international news organizations’ initial online coverage of the TMZ video release, AJR found that six websites embedded the video directly into their news stories, seven linked to the video on TMZ’s website, and five opted not to include the video in their web coverage at all.
CNN chose not to embed or link to the video in its web coverage, while The New York Times embedded the video in a web story with a warning statement just below it, in the caption area.
Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times, explained the paper’s decision in an email to AJR: “Since the content of this video was absolutely central to the Rice story, I think we all agreed that it was important to allow readers to see it for themselves,” he wrote. “But the warning note gives readers the chance to decide whether to watch, or just to read the description in our article.”
This was a common strategy in dealing with the footage. The Washington Post preceded the video with a brief warning statement placed just above the video, as did BuzzFeed, which positioned its warning at the very top of the story.
USA Today’s website posted video of a TV news segment from WUSA-9, the Gannett-owned station in Washington, which contained portions of the TMZ video, but WUSA had edited out the most graphic scenes and told viewers in the segment it had done so.
The Chicago Tribune’s web coverage included an animated gif from TMZ of Rice’s knockout blow — in slow motion, on repeat.
In addition to embedding the video, BuzzFeed included still screenshots from the video, which could only be viewed after clicking a blurred-out “Warning: This image is graphic” overlay.
News sites varied in what factors influenced their decisions.
Corbett said The New York Times’ policy is to review ethical concerns over graphic images case by case.
“There should always be discussion before we publish violent or otherwise disturbing material, and there was extensive discussion in this instance,” Corbett said. “As in other cases — for instance, involving violent images from battlefields — we are weighing the sensitivity of readers and viewers, the privacy and dignity of the people depicted, and our mission to convey important news clearly and unflinchingly.”
For BuzzFeed reporter Rachel Zarrell, the question of whether or not to post the video was an easy one.
“We didn’t even have a conversation about it, because we’ve made similar decisions before,” Zarrell said. “At BuzzFeed, we generally believe that if it’s out there, people have a right to see it. It’s our job to tell our readers what happened, not to tell them whether or not to watch something.”
BuzzFeed , a heavily visual site, went a step further than other news outlets by providing a separate link that mobile users could click to watch the video. It also provided a kind of play-by-play account of what happens in the video by adding text captions to the still screenshots it took from the video.
“You never know how people will be consuming content, so we break it down into a simple narrative,” Zarrell said. “That’s just our style.”
Although some people criticized news outlets for showing the video so widely, saying it was insensitive to Rice’s wife and too graphic for public consumption, others saw it as a crucial way to hold the NFL accountable for its players’ actions and to heighten awareness about domestic violence.
“TMZ made public evidence of a crime that is normally behind closed doors,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “They were able to make manifest what this crime looks like — assault as a form of domestic abuse.”
In a column for The Guardian, Hannah Giorgis, a feminist writer based in New York, condemned news organizations for exploiting Janay Rice’s vulnerable moment for the sake of public commentary. She wrote that it “speaks volumes” about not only Rice’s husband, but about those who feel “entitled (and excited) to access gut-wrenching images of a woman being abused…”
Giorgis wrote, “What are we saying about ourselves when we place (black) women’s pain under a microscope only to better consume the full kaleidoscope of their suffering?”
But Gitlin believes that the release of the video was a significant journalistic contribution because it spreads awareness of something that is frequently considered a private matter.
“Videos have an emotional power,” he said.
BuzzFeed’s Zarrell agreed, saying journalists have a responsibility to show this kind of footage.
“I find it condescending that a news organization wouldn’t post something because they thought it was too graphic,” she said. “One of the rewarding aspects of being a journalist is the potential to bring about change – like get an NFL player fired. I’m glad I work at a place where we err on the side of exposure and honesty rather than concealing.”