Monday, March 15, 2010
The recent and tragic death of a SeaWorld trainer, who died in the jaws of a killer whale, was so bizarre it captured the nation's attention.
It is normal to be interested as well as horrified by this type of tragedy. But do we need to see the raw video of the whale pulling trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water and swimming around the tank with her lifeless body in his mouth?
No. It would be disturbing, particularly to Brancheau's family and friends, to have the video shown over and over again on TV and the Internet. It serves no constructive purpose.
Yet, because the video tape, voluntarily turned over to the Orange County Sheriff's Office by SeaWorld, is being used in a law enforcement investigation it is considered a public document under Florida law. No crime was committed. All deaths must be investigated.
The law mandating the release of information is generally a sound one. Making records, including videos, accessible by the public is a safeguard. It protects those who are accused of crimes from being unfairly prosecuted.
However, some videos and pictures can be so gruesome and disturbing that they don't need to be released and widely distributed.
Brancheau's family is seeking a court injunction to block the release of the video on the grounds that a public airing of the killing would worsen their grief. The family has hired the lawyer who successfully won a court fight to keep private the 2001 autopsy photos of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.
The cases are similar and Brancheau's family should prevail. The case to block the Earnhardt photos was aided by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that blocked the effort to force the federal government to release photographs from the suicide of Clinton administration White House lawyer Vincent Foster.
"Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own,'' Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.
But it shouldn't take a judge to keep these disturbing images from being widely circulated on TV, the Internet, newspapers and magazine.
The public can -- and should -- speak out. Yet, that doesn't happen often enough.
For example, the public should have been outraged that NBC showed over and over again the footage of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Olympics. If viewers made it clear they didn't want to see the images and wouldn't watch the Olympics if it was aired, NBC might have been more sensitive in the choice it made.
The video of the SeaWorld death doesn't need to be seen. The public should make that clear before the matter is decided by a Florida court.