Fox News in trouble by showing a man shooting himself in the head on live television program
The network was broadcasting a car chase – a staple of cable news – when at about 3.30pm the suspect dumped the car, stumbled down a track, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Sergeant Tommy Thompson from the Phoenix police department said the man died at the scene. “Efforts to revive him were futile”, Thompson said. “He died of his injuries.” Thompson said the man had stolen the car, a Dodge Caliber, at gunpoint before the chase began. He fired at police officers in pursuit and at a police helicopter before shooting himself, Thompson added.
While Fox issued an immediate and unqualified apology, other websites – including the vogueish social news site Buzzfeed and longer-established rival Gawker – chose to re-publish unedited video of the apparent suicide.
The incident raised questions about the fascination of US news networks with car chases, as well as the lengths to which popular websites will go to attract an audience.
For much of Friday afternoon, Fox News had been streaming helicopter footage, with a voiceover commentary from host Shepard Smith, of a car chase near Pheonix, Arizona. For part of the time, police were pursuing the Dodge through the state. By mid-afternoon, police had stopped following the car, but it continued to be tracked by media helicopters.
Just before 3.30pm the vehicle had slowed to a crawl; the driver turned off the road and onto a dirt track. The driver’s door was slightly ajar as the car advanced through the field, before coming to a halt after around 15 seconds. A man wearing a dark sports shirt stepped out of the car, and appeared to reach back inside before walking away.
The man looked around him before stumbling down the dirt track and then into long grass. He stopped, raised what appeared to be a gun to his head, and fell to the ground.
Fox News went back to the studio, where Smith was seen looking off camera and shouting: “Get off it, get off it.” The network swiftly cut to a commercial break.
When Smith returned, he apologised for the graphic coverage, saying that the channel had been carrying the chase on a delay to avoid such an incident, but had made a mistake in broadcasting it anyway.
“While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live, when the guy pulled over and got out of the vehicle, we went on delay,” Smith said.
“We created a five-second delay so that we would see in the studio what was happening five [seconds] before you did, so if anything went horribly wrong we were able to cut away from it.”
“We really messed up, and we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on television. We took every precaution … I personally apologise to you that that happened,” Shepherd continued.
“It’s not time appropriate, it’s not sensitive: it’s just wrong,” he said. “That won’t happen again on my watch, and I’m terribly sorry,” Smith said.
Fox News did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Officers did not appear to be following the car at the time the man abandoned it.
After Fox News apologised for its error, the Buzzfeed website posted a clip of the incident on its website. It offered users an edited version without the apparent suicide, and an unedited version.
Fox later issued a statement: “We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five second delay. Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.”
Buzzfeed also issued a statement, which said: “Making an editorial decision on how to cover a sensitive, tragic news event like this is never an easy one. But it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization. We posted both an edited version and the full version and we respect our readers’ judgment.”
Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan posted: “Some Gawker staffers were against publishing the clip. My position was that it is clearly news, and that we should run it on that basis. When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news. It is unpleasant, but it is news. You may legitimately decide to watch it or not, but it is news.” – Guardian (UK)