Watching Eight Belles

The Kentucky High School Journalism Association invited several journalists from across the spectrum of media to be part of a panel discussion with students this week. I participated, thinking the questions would range from “Should I major in broadcasting in college?” to “How did you get started in journalism?” Boy, was I wrong.

We fielded lots of questions about ethics, actually. And one stuck with me: did we agree or disagree with NBC’s decision not to air footage of Eight Belles collapsing after placing second in the Derby. One panelist explained the situation: NBC has exclusive broadcast rights on the track during the afternoon of Derby. A producer made the decision not to run the footage because it’s too disturbing. But the panelist also said she wished they had aired it, she was looking for it. Another panelist agreed; she wanted to know how Eight Belles broke both front legs, to have seen how it happened. Another brought up news organizations’, and society’s ambivalence, about showing dead humans versus dead animals.

Some people–and some news editors–may be able to detach themselves from pictures of the dead. We’ve certainly seen the bloodstained shrouds of murdered Iraqis, for instance, much, much too often. But we rarely see images of dead American soldiers, or even dead people in American tragedies. And dead animals? Especially the charismatic, soulful-eyed kinds like horses and puppies? Nope.

But perhaps seeing the dead could connect a viewer with the story in an unexpected way. I can certainly understand an argument for respecting the dead by not parading their images across our pages and screens. But I wonder if our squeamishness about death sometimes causes us to miss a part of the story.

Read a New York Times sports writer’s opinion.

Another opinion here from a USA Today sports writer.