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Capturing Tragedy

When watching a news report on the recent tragedy in Colorado I was struck by the sight of people using mobile phones to film people leaving the cinema. The state of shock on the people’s faces and the freshness of the blood on their clothes signaled that the event was still unfolding. My first response was surprise that someone would think to start filming in the midst of such circumstances. My second was to wonder whether there were any grounds for objection. The particular video shown on the news was not very graphic, although the fear and confusion was tangible. There may have been more gruesome mobile videos from that day. So, I pose the following questions: is it OK to video horror as it unfolds? Might there even be good reasons to do so? What factors affect the answer to this question?


The first thing to be clear about is the potential value in capturing tragic events. First, and most obviously, the videos can be a source of information. We can know with much more certainty what ‘really happened’ if it was captured on video – videos of a tragic event provide information for news reports aiming to document and disseminate facts, and possibly also for courts, as sources of evidence. We are always grateful when CCTV cameras capture this useful information, no matter how terrible the images.

In addition to providing hard information, there might also be value in the way that a video can allow its viewers to better understand – even vicariously experience – the nature or ‘reality’ of the event in a way that simply reading or hearing about it doesn’t achieve. This value might be located in the way a video makes it difficult for the viewer to distance himself from the plight of his fellow human beings. However, whilst it is good to try to fully understand what others have been through, it is likely that some tragedies are so disturbing that we do not think potential viewers have a duty to enter into the experience themselves.


Balanced against this value-in-information justification are several potential reasons why capturing horror might not be OK. The first objection would be that the cameraman or woman should be helping rather than filming. This would obviously be true if there was something clear to do and the number of people needed was greater than or equal to the number of people in the vicinity. If we imagine a person has been set on fire, and the nearby bucket of water requires the strength of two people to lift it, if the would-be cameraman is one of two people there, he must help, not film. It becomes less clear, though, if there is nothing anyone can do. Might it actually be most helpful then to capture the details of what happens?

This leads to the next objection: even if there’s nothing one can do to help, the act of videoing the events as they unfold could suggest a dispassionate or even voyeuristic attitude towards said events. I leave for reader discussion whether the spirit in which the filming is conducted is relevant to whether it is OK and how this balances with the usefulness of the information.

The third potential objection is that there could be issues of privacy or dignity involved in filming the victims of the horrific event. It is likely that a person experiencing great pain and suffering would object to a camera steadily trained on their unfolding nightmare. Whether this would require the automatic respect of the wishes of the victim (if expressed) or the weighing up of these wishes with the information potentially captured is unclear.

There may be other things that bear on whether filming tragedy is unethical. I leave you with the following, as points for further discussion:

  • Does the type of event make a difference to the ethics of capturing it? For example, an event resulting in physical suffering v psychological suffering; an event involving adults v children; an event involving one victim v many victims; an event perpetrated by nature v human being(s).
  • Is there a threshold beyond which the extent of the horror precludes any justification from the value of information from succeeding?
  • If we think there is value in information, should there be any limits on the distribution of/access to such videos?
  • Does it matter (ethically) whether or not the videoer’s purpose was to capture the event for information?


These questions become most interesting when we consider a variety of different horrific events and the potential filming of them. The particular video of the Colorado shooting shown on the news was upsetting, but not ethically problematic – neither in terms of the filming nor the broadcasting. That some opportunistic filming could be problematic, and when and why this would be the case, is for discussion today.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I don’t think it’s possible to give any broad assessment of camera-people’s motives when videoing these things – some may well be sickeningly voyeuristic, while others may take out their phones because they genuinely want to help by preserving something useful in the immediacy of the event. I would say, however, that whatever standards we hold for the public and their video-phones must also go for news reporters should they be able to arrive with their equipment while the events are still unfolding.

  2. If I remember correctly there was a video taken in New York City at the Pan Am Counter shortly after the Lockerbie tragedy.

    A mother came up to the counter to check on status of her daughter’s flight.

    The mother had no idea that the plane had been destroyed by a bomb.

    The News Crew filming it did and filmed the conversation between the Pan Am representative and mother.

    Upon hearing the news that the plane had crashed and there were no apparent survivors the mother’s face contorted in pain

    and she collapsed upon the floor and writhed in agony.

    That was not a live report, it was taped and shown on the news.

    Was there any need to invade the privacy and sorrow of that mother ?

    What was done, was done, the dead were dead and nothing short of a miracle was going to bring them back to life.

    Likewise, if I am a member of a News-Crew my moral should be more to help the people who can still be helped

    rather than film the agony or the dead bodies of destroyed by the ongoing tragedy.

    We have become voyeurs of the most base sort and we have lost our moral bearings by doing so.

  3. When approaching a scene of accident, say traffic, why do we slow down with our gaze fixated on the scene? Why don’t we simply pass by the scene without looking? Why do peaceful people watch horror and violence on the television and cinema screens?

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