WVUA Video of University of Alabama Students At Bama Belle Crossed Way Over Ethical Line

A WVUA YouTube Video showing distraught, emotional University of Alabama students after Charles Edward Jones fell overboard Thursday from The Bama Belle violated the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics code, which requires journalists to minimize harm.

This is a still image taken from the questionable WVUA video that showed the crying students as they exited the Bama Belle, shortly after Charles Edward Jones, III apparently fell overboard.

A WVUA-TV video clip posted on YouTube showing emotional University of Alabama students as they left The Bama Belle Thursday night after one of their own fell overboard went far beyond reporting the news and has sparked outrage among those on social media.

The body of Charles Edward Jones,III known by friends as “Tre,” was found Friday afternoon following hours of searching Tuscaloosa’s Black Warrior River.

Jones, an engineering major from Demopolis, Ala.  had been attending a Delta Sigma Theta party Thursday on board The Bama Belle, a riverboat along The Black Warrior River that’s become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions since it started offering public cruises in 2001.

While the investigation into Jones’ tragic death continues and family and friends prepare to remember him at an April 11th memorial service,  we must call attention to a journalism mis-step that makes all of those covering this story look bad.

The questionable video

The 1:18 edited video depicts crying students as they exited the riverboat while another overcome with emotion collapses on the ground.

Another student is heard yelling “Where is he?   If I call his mama back, one of y’all better have the answer.”

Another student in the crowd quickly holds up a sheet to shield the student from the camera that was rolling.

At the time the video was taken, search crews had not been able to find Jones and later that night suspended their search due to the dark conditions.

While emotion is certainly an element of the news that we try to capture, when that emotion comes at the expense of someone else’s grief, harm CAN be done.

The Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code requires that journalists MINIMIZE HARM.

It specifically requires journalists to “be sensitive” when covering “those affected by tragedy or grief.”

The shooter of this video did not minimize the harm that can come from videotaping someone who is obviously distraught.

Then, to broadcast that for thousands to see amounts to exploitation.

Webster defines “exploit”  as to make use of meanly or unjustly for one’s own advantage.

As one who works with (and has taught) many of the WVUA-TV news employees, I’m absolutely certain that no one at WVUA-TV meant to intentionally harm the students who were shown in this very unflattering manner.

But, as one of the national leaders of  The Society of Professional Journalists, I have to call attention to an ethical violation when I see that it has occurred, even when it’s committed by someone in our house here at the University of Alabama (WVUA-TV  is owned by The University of Alabama)

Why I Won’t Show, Embed or Link to THE VIDEO

If you noticed, I have included only STILL shots of the video in this post because every time we promote the clip for others to see we are exploiting those depicted in the video.

The concept of “going viral”  usually involves an internet message (often on YouTube) that has notoriety and spreads quickly as people talk about it and link to it and then send that link to someone else.

As of Saturday evening, 48 hours after it was posted, the video in question had more than 3, ooo views.    Another version of the video, which included news conference interview clips from Tuscaloosa Police Sgt. Brent Blankley,  had nearly 10,000 views by Saturday evening.

It is also worth noting, that the footage of the emotional UA students DOES NOT  appear in any of WVUA-TV’s  Friday evening news reports (5pm, 6 p.m. or 10 p.m.).

Thus, it apparently was only transmitted via the nation’s largest video sharing Web site (YouTube).

Social Media Reaction

Minutes after the video appeared online, criticism began on Twitter.

Rainey O’Keith. @jayDOTrain

news reporters will take ANY story and flip it for personal gain. whether you know Tre’ or not, he’s somebody’s son, or brother. #PrayForTre

@Sexyy_Lexie it’s a video by WVUA that shows ppl immediately after they got off the boat, it truly hurts seeing ppl in pain like that

A. C. @GladiatorNAsuit

The UA media got us right where they wanted us…smh…this is an outrage. WVUA should be ashamed.

What’s Wrong With Showing What Happened?

WVUA-TV should not be criticized for covering the story.  It had the responsibility to provide up-to-the-minute details of what was happening.

If you follow the @wvuatv  Twitter feed or the updates from WVUA Anchor John Huddleston @johnwvua, you will see the fantastic way WVUA staff kept people informed of the facts as they were learning them on Thursday evening.

The ethical line was crossed when the video exploiting the grief and emotion that was expressed by students was shot and posted online.  The students in the video were not yet able to figure out what was happening with Jones, who was still missing.

There is a time to turn the camera on and a time to leave it off.

This was a time to leave it off.

Hindsight is always 20/20.   But, there are things to take away from this.

Five Lessons WVUA Should Learn

1.  Always Consider “Does the Video ADD to the information provided in the story?”  If not, wait until you can get that critical information. Usually crying sources are not very informative.

2. Is there more sensationalism than substantive content in the video or photos that are gathered?   If the answer is yes, then DON’T DO IT.

3. Consider the State of Mind of Your Intended Source.   In What Condition is the person to provide critical, reliable information?  If The Answer is “NOT GOOD,” then DON’T SHOOT IT!

4. Grief and Sadness Are a Part of Life.  But, a Person Has The Right to Grieve and Be Sad in Private, even if the incident is a highly-publicized incident.   Cameras can capture everything, but not everything captured is RIGHT TO BE SHARED.   Exercise The Utmost in Discretion When Deciding Whether to Use or Not Use An Image or Video.

5.  In Breaking News Situations, Focus on the Investigations By the Law Enforcement and Other Government Agencies.  Often these elements are most likely to advance the story.   The people involved are usually removed emotionally from the story and can provide the most information.   As newsworthy as their experience is, the victims/survivors or those in shock can be interviewed/videotaped LATER, after they have come to terms with what has happened.    They will let you know when they are ready to talk or be shown.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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