Is it Ethical to Monetise a Tragedy?

When tragedy strikes, it has become commonplace to see witnesses capturing the scene on their smartphones. But a growing number of people are licensing those clips, and turning a profit from gruesome or tragic events.

One of the most-viewed viral videos of this year occurred when an IT manager from Michigan happened to be visiting Cincinnati Zoo with her family and witnessed a three-year-old boy clambering over a fence, and fell into the gorilla enclosure occupied by Harambe, a 440lb silverback Gorilla.

She tried to comfort the boy’s mother, while also urging spectators to keep quiet so as not to antagonise the gorilla any further. She also filmed the events that unfolded on her smartphone. As we now know, Harambe grabbed the boy and dragged him away from the screaming crowds. The zookeepers shot and killed the gorilla. The boy escaped without serious injury.

A media frenzy ensued and ultimately Kim’s video was seen by tens of millions of people around the world. A slew of news organisations sought Kim’s permission to use the footage, many of them offering money for an exclusive deal. She signed a contract with one of them, a company called ViralHog. That agreement meant that Kim was no longer deluged with direct requests for the footage – ViralHog took on the job of fielding them. It also earned Kim “tens of thousands” of dollars, she says.

But how does the system work? How do you turn a viral news video into tens of thousands of dollars?

The process is relatively simple. First, scour social media and the web for videos with viral potential, then try to strike a deal with the owner to “represent” the content. “Usually we’ll come to a revenue split, usually 50/50,” says David.

The money comes both from advertising that runs alongside the clips on social media platforms, and by selling the footage directly to news organisations who want to republish it on their own websites, or show it on TV.

However, not everyone is comfortable with the practice of selling mobile videos of tragic events. Some have questioned the ethics of witnesses who choose to monetise footage of events which they have chanced upon as an ordinary bystander. Increasingly though it is that sort of striking viral footage which is making money.

Many believe it’s never right to monetise tragedy.

Never right to monetise tragedy? In one sense that’s always been the business of commercial news organisations – and in recent decades we’ve all become familiar with the idea of journalists racing to tragic events with their cameras rolling. So is there any distinction between a passer-by snatching some footage on their phone, and the traditional freelance or agency news camera operator?

As one commentator said “That’s different from the person who’s just there at the right time. They have to be trained to do that skilfully, and to present that information in a balanced way. I do think there’s a morality issue there.”