Breaking Dak: The ethics of broadcasting injuries in sports

TRIGGER WARNING: There are some graphic videos here of traumatic injuries. I will only embed one, which I’m guessing a lot of people have already seen. The rest will be via link. Watch at your own discretion. -VFF

The outcome of the Dallas Cowboys/New York Giants game Sunday was completely overshadowed by an injury to quarterback Dak Prescott, who sustained a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.

Prescott was scrambling for a first down when his body went one way and a sizeable portion of his lower leg went the other way:

(If you don’t want to watch this, I don’t blame you. My wife, Amy, a nurse who loves to talk about brain surgery over dinner and is an avid watcher of “Doctor Pimple Popper,” was really disturbed when she saw this.)

Tony Romo, who was in the booth doing color commentary for CBS, immediately realized something was horrible, proclaiming, “Oh no… Oh NO!” As a former QB, Romo has been on the turf for Dallas a few times with severe injuries. However, he seemed to almost want to magically wish this one away by saying, “You almost gotta hope it’s a cramp right there…” After about three replays, he knew that wasn’t the case.

As fascinating as this was, much like other things that are odd, chaotic and disturbing, I found myself watching it a few times and yet hating that I could see what had happened.

When it comes to gruesome sports injuries, the question for journalists is, “What is enough coverage?” The answer seems to vary from situation to situation and announcer to announcer.

Take the case of Clint Malarchuk, a goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, who caught a skate to the neck in a 1989 game against the St. Louis Blues. The gash sliced open his jugular vein and slashed through his carotid artery. If not for the presence of Sabres’ athletic trainer Jim Pizzutelli, a former US Army combat medic who served in the Vietnam War, Malarchuk would have likely died that night. 

As blood began hitting the ice, the announcers immediately implored the camera operator to stop showing the injury. Malarchuk actually skated off the ice after he received assistance from Pizzutelli and that was the only other shot of him. No replays, no slow-motion blood gushing. After that, the camera stayed in a distance shot of the ice until everything was cleaned up and play was ready to resume.

Contrast that with the case of former Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum, who sustained a career-ending knee injury on Monday Night Football at the start of the 1994 season. Ken Norton of the San Francisco 49ers hit McCallum low when he crashed into the pile, but McCallum’s cleat stuck in the turf, forcing his knee to buckle backwards at an almost completely right angle.

I remember watching this game on TV and the announcers kept showing it over and over and over again, going in slow motion to show each frame worth of knee distortion. Each time they did it, it was accompanied by an announcer saying, “Oh… You hate to see that” or “You might not want to watch this…” And yet, they kept showing it.

Perhaps the most famous Monday Night Football injury involved Washington Football quarterback Joe Theismann, who saw his career end on the field. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who made a career out of having no regard for his own body or that of quarterbacks, snapped Theismann’s leg in half. Immediately, Taylor popped up and started waving for the trainer as he held his head in his hands in disbelief.

As the officials tried to figure out what to do about this mangled man, ABC kept looking for the best possible angle to figure out what had happened, finally finding a reverse angle that will never leave your head if you see it once. To its credit, once ABC got there, the station didn’t show it again.

So, the question remains, “How much is too much?”

There might be an official code that outlines this, but I’m having difficulty finding one. Thus, what you see below is kind of a patchwork of various codes that could provide some guidance:

The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), which deals primarily with broadcast journalism, has a section in its ethical code about accountability  that touches somewhat on this:

Journalism provides enormous benefits to self-governing societies. In the process,it can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision.

(A similar approach came in this voluntary code of digital broadcasters, which seems to have come from the National Association of Broadcasters.)

The Football Writers Association of America, which deals more with college sports coverage,  lists of elements within its code of ethics to deal with issues happening on the field. Under “Minimize Harm,” it notes the following elements:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity with children or inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

(For reasons past my understanding, I can’t find the code of ethics for the pro version of these folks. Maybe it’s buried in the “members only” section.)

In contrast, the Society of Professional Journalists, digs into the ethics of the field at length in its code. Along with the minimize harm stuff that was in the other codes, here was an interesting add:

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

Obviously “pandering” and “lurid” are in the eye of the beholder, but it does provide the “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you?” line of logic on this one.
I always go back to the line I remember hearing at the State Journal, where we employed “The Breakfast Test.” If someone were picking up our paper and reading it over breakfast, would the images (or in some cases EXTREMELY vivid writing) make that person puke in their Cheerios?

And, yet, again, this is variable in a lot of ways. Papers up by us have no problem running photos of people who have “cleaned” deer and pose next to the gutted, skinned carcasses hanging from trees. The hunting community is used to that. For a lot of other folks, that’s going to be a breakfast showstopper.

In any case, the unfortunate answer to the question, “How much is too much?” when it comes this kind of coverage is like most ethical or “taste” situations: It depends.

The audience you serve, the expectations they have, the previous things you’ve shown them with or without problem and more come into this. However, even if you don’t have a concrete answer, it helps to discuss this to find ways to understand what to do when you find yourself in a situation like this. The more you can gain collective knowledge in advance, the better prepared you will be to make your choice.

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