Viewer Discretion: Deciding When To Look Away

Apr 1, 2013

I was out of the house, as it happens, for most of the first half of yesterday's Louisville-Duke game, and when I got home and looked at Twitter, before I turned on the TV, there was a huge stack of stuff to read, and the first thing that caught my attention about the game was this.

That's Dan Fienberg of Hitfix, tweeting about the grisly broken leg suffered by Louisville's Kevin Ware with 6:33 to go in the first half. When I turned on the game, the first thing I saw was the ambulance doors closing, and the first thing I heard was the announcers sounding like they were officiating at a funeral.

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, the reaction was so intense, so pronounced and so horrified — from friends I know to be sports fans who have seen plenty of very ugly injuries — that I decided almost immediately that I didn't need to see it for myself. They told me it was awful; I believed them. They told me they didn't think they'd ever forget it; I believed them. They told me about both coaches tearing up, teammates lying on the floor, college kids looking like they were about to throw up. And I believed them, and I was grateful that it wasn't replayed, because I didn't watch it. I still haven't.

It's certainly possible, even likely, that I'll bump into it accidentally at some point, and it was immediately clear that it would be available immediately for anyone who wondered, but I was surprised how quickly that wondering passed. I asked a friend via text whether it had seemed to be anybody's fault, wondering whether some other kid was about to enter a different nightmare entirely — maybe a reason to see it for myself — but when he said no, that it was a freak accident, that was the end.

I found myself ultimately satisfied with the way things turned out, in that a viewer had to seek it out in order to see it. Sports coverage usually works the opposite way: It's the broadcast equivalent of a push technology, where you sit back and they push the important stuff to you — highlights, replays, big moments. Here, they took the injury out of that cycle but didn't hide anything. If you want to see that injury happen, you likely already have.

Writer Will Leitch — who, as far as I know, hasn't watched it, either — wrote this morning in defense of those who made it available. It's a very fair defense, though I'm more convinced by the "it is news" argument than by the "people want to watch it" argument, since the latter really would seem to allow a slippery slope into, as he puts it, "some anonymous snuff video."

It is news, this accident. It happened in a game that was already a national story, as opposed to some high school game that would otherwise be totally unimportant that we gawk at only because there's a horrifying injury in it. It affected that game (which Louisville eventually won), and it affected a good player, and millions of people saw it live. Furthermore, it raises — or, really, re-raises — critical questions about how the NCAA works and the financial position in which injured players are left, usually in situations not nearly this high in profile. It's news; it is worth paying attention to for reasons that are not prurient in the slightest.

But you don't need, for any of this, to actually see Ware break his leg. The force that pulls in that direction is pure curiosity — not a cold, vicious curiosity, but the curiosity that makes you peek under rocks and in holes where you maybe shouldn't — but you wonder. It's human to wonder; it's why we put curtains on our windows and covers on electrical outlets. Lots of people have looked at the video of the injury; that's easy to understand.

Of course, the fact that curiosity is natural doesn't mean indulging it is an unqualified good. Media outlets have, for years, done exactly what they did yesterday, which is to decide how much of a raw video they're going to show. But increasingly, even if they don't choose to show something that's news — like this injury is — they may tell us where to find it, and even put it one click away, and the choice will be entirely ours. And managing curiosity will become, more than ever, our own ethical muck to wade through.

Whether to broadcast or print will remain a media problem, but whether to seek will be a personal one. I didn't watch this injury on replay, but I've certainly watched others. And I've certainly clicked on headlines I'm not proud of clicking on.

There are huge advantages in the decline of pure gatekeeping: You can read original documents, see videos and curate for yourself more than ever. You can dig deep if digging deep is what appeals. But the more we are served video of everything and audio of everything, the more we're all going to either put the brakes on our own curiosity, or ... not. If everybody winds up in Google Glasses (or the Apple equivalent), you're going to have even more easy opportunities than you have now to see video of perfectly ordinary people in pain, in fear, in horror, having sex, being hurt, being spied on, being humiliated and otherwise being human and fascinating.

The opportunities for peeking when we know better are going up; the logistical hurdles to doing so are going down. We're all going to make more of these decisions, not fewer. But yesterday, I felt like my timing was perfect.

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