Live television always has the potential for disaster, but that risk is ramped up when the real-time coverage involves car chases.
Fox News Channel -- no stranger to airing speeding vehicles attempting to flee the cops -- found out the hard way Friday when it inadvertently showed a man shooting himself in the head after being chased by Phoenix police.
Fox News was covering the chase using a live helicopter shot from its Phoenix affiliate when the driver stopped his car, ran into the desert and staggered around before putting a gun to his head, pulling the trigger and slumping to the ground.
Fox anchor Shepard Smith apologized to viewers, saying the video was supposed to be on a five-second delay so the network could pull the footage off the air in case something graphic -- like a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head -- should occur.
Prior to the apparent suicide, Smith had been narrating the video of the chase, which was generating social media buzz -- and no doubt a boost in ratings. "Would not be a Friday with out a high speed car chase on @FoxNews! #LovesIt," tweeted one of many captivated viewers leading up to the disastrous final act.
When Smith saw the train wreck that was coming he shouted, "Get off, get off, get off, get off it," to producers but it was too late. The footage had been shown and it wasn't long before it was posted on YouTube (which subsequently removed it for violating is "shocking and disgusting" policy) and other websites, such as BuzzFeed.
After the incident aired, Fox News cut to a commercial break. It returned to a contrite Smith, who looked to be disgusted by the whole thing, as he repeatedly apologized to viewers.
"That should not have been on TV," he said. "That was wrong and it won't happen again on my watch."
The Associated Press reported that Fox's executive vice president of news editorial, Michael Clemente, issued a statement: "We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five second delay," he said. "Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen."
Only the biggest cynic would assume anything other than a mistake was at play here. But the end result still raises several thorny topics, including the arguable news value of airing live car chases.
Do televised chases serve any purpose other than to boost ratings? No. Is it fair to fault a television network for wanting higher ratings? Again, no. But as we saw today, there's a real risk in going after those additional eyeballs with something as unpredictable as a car chase. I doubt most of the people who were following the action on Fox News wanted to see a man put a bullet in his head. Many said as much on Twitter and the comment section of blogs, taking Fox to task for its gruesome mistake.
Just as television news knows there's a risk for things to go wrong when broadcasting live car chases, viewers have to realize the same when they choose to tune in. They also might want to ask themselves why they're tuning in. One thing's for sure: It's not see if the person being chased ends up with a speeding ticket. They're watching because car chases carry an inherent potential for mayhem, and many of them got a lot more than they bargained for with this unfortunate broadcast.
So will this debacle change the way live car chases are covered, or whether they're covered at all? The New York Times' Media Decoder blog raised an interesting point about changes made in the wake of a televised suicide in 1998 in L.A., when a man set his truck on fire and shot himself with a shotgun. The blog said that after the event, some local stations put time delays on future live coverage and ordered aerial cameramen to film wide shots rather than close-ups during chases.
My hunch is nothing major will change, not as long as car chases boost ratings and feed much-needed content to the 24-hour cable news cycle on an otherwise slow day.
As long as there's an appetite for this kind of television, you can bet someone will serve it up. And mistakes will be made, resulting in what many people witnessed today.