Eight Florida teenagers charged with beating another teen so they could post the "animalistic" attack on YouTube got exactly what they had wanted — worldwide exposure.
But that doesn't mean YouTube or any other media company should get the blame, legally or ethically, for the attack, media experts said Friday.
In fact, they have a duty to share the video, said Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"The fact that the video was shot because they were seeking publicity was secondary," McBride said. "A crime was committed in our community, and if there's a videotape of it, I want some information. That video was incredibly revealing. It told more truth about what happened than any other form of reporting could have told."
The teenagers have been arrested on charges that they beat the teen so they could make a video of the attack to post online. One of the girls struck the 16-year-old victim on the head several times and then slammed her head into a wall, knocking her unconscious, according to an arrest report.
"It's absolutely an animalistic attack," Sheriff Grady Judd said earlier this week. "They lured her into the home for the express purpose of filming the attack and posting it on the Internet."
On Friday, a judge set bail for each of the defendants at $30,000 during the teens' first court appearance. Prosecutors said seven of the girls will be tried as adults in the March 30 attack in Lakeland, Fla. They face charges of kidnapping, battery and witness tampering.
It's not clear who posted the video on the Internet. But the Polk County sheriff's office released a clip that has been widely circulating online and on television, including The Associated Press' video network.
Those who blame YouTube or news organizations should blame themselves first, said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"The public is culpable as well because they are paying attention," he said. "There is no medium that forces them to pay attention."
CNN spokeswoman Barbara Levin said the cable news network has tried to place the video in the proper context.
"In reporting the story, we have gone to great lengths to explain that these young women face severe consequences for their actions, and in fact may be facing harsher sentencing because the videotape provides evidence of the nature of the attacks," she said in a statement.
No YouTube comment
YouTube, owned by Google Inc., declined to comment on the video, but said its general policies call for the removal of clips that show someone getting "hurt, attacked or humiliated."
From a legal standpoint, YouTube and other online service providers are largely exempt from liability because of a 1996 anti-pornography law. One provision says Internet service providers are not considered publishers simply because they retransmit information provided by their users or other sources.
Federal courts have applied that broadly to cover not just Internet access providers, but also video-sharing sites, message boards and other online services.
Even without that provision, there doesn't appear to be anything illegal about the video, said John Morris, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil-liberties group in Washington, D.C.
"There is no legal reason this video cannot be shown. It is obviously distasteful, abhorrent what the teenagers did to the victim, but it doesn't really make sense (to ask), 'Should YouTube have taken it down?'" Morris said.
Even if there were a claim of illegality, he said, the courts should be the ones deciding, not YouTube.
"Many of those assertions are really very difficult, legal determinations that YouTube has no ability to make," Morris said. "Really, YouTube is not in a position to be a traffic cop."