Live video of man who set himself on fire outside court proves challenging for news organizations

NEW YORK (AP) — Video cameras stationed outside the Manhattan courthouse where former President Donald Trump is on trial caught the gruesome scene Friday of a man who lit himself on fire and the aftermath as authorities tried to rescue him.

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC were all on the air with reporters talking about the seating of a jury when the incident happened and other news agencies, including The Associated Press, were livestreaming from outside the courthouse. The man, who distributed pamphlets before dousing himself in an accelerant and setting himself on fire, was taken to a hospital where he later died.

The incident tested how quickly the networks could react, and how they decided what would be too disturbing for their viewers to see.

With narration from Laura Coates, CNN had the most extensive view of the scene. Coates, who at first incorrectly said it was a shooting situation, then narrated as the man was visible onscreen, enveloped in flames.

“You can smell burning flesh,” Coates, an anchor and CNN's chief legal analyst, said as she stood at the scene with reporter Evan Perez.

The camera switched back and forth between Coates and what was happening in the park. Five minutes after the incident started, CNN posted the onscreen message “Warning: Graphic Content.”

Coates later said she couldn’t “overstate the emotional response of watching a human being engulfed in flames and to watch his body be lifted into a gurney.” She described it as an “emotional and unbelievably disturbing moment here.”

Fox's cameras caught the scene briefly as reporter Eric Shawn talked, then the network switched to a courtroom sketch of Trump on trial.

“We deeply apologize for what has happened,” Shawn said.

On MSNBC, reporter Yasmin Vossoughian narrated the scene. The network showed smoke in the park, but no picture where the body was visible.

“I could see the outline of his body inside the flames,” Vossoughian said, “which was so terrifying to see. As he went to the ground his knees hit the ground first.”

The AP had a camera with an unnarrated live shot stationed outside the courthouse, shown on YouTube and The cameras caught an extensive view, with the man lighting himself afire and later writhing on the ground before a police officer tried to douse the flames with a jacket.

The AP later removed its live feed from its YouTube channel and replaced it with a new one because of the graphic nature of the content.

The news agency distributed carefully edited clips to its video clients — not showing the moment the man lit himself on fire, for example, said executive producer Tom Williams.

Julien Gorbach, a University of Hawaii at Manoa associate professor of journalism, said news organizations didn't face much of a dilemma about whether to show the footage because there was little for the public to gain by seeing images of a man lighting himself on fire.

The episode highlights how fast information travels and the importance of critical thinking, Gorbach said.

“It outpaces our ability to a) sort out the facts, and b) do the kind of methodical, critical thinking that we need to do so that we understand the truth of what actually this incident was all about,” Gorbach said.

The location of the incident may have prompted some to think the self-immolation was related to the trial.

Gorbach, who was listening to MSNBC on satellite radio when it happened, said the coverage he heard was careful to question whether there was any connection to the trial. It also raised the possibility the man may have wanted to get media attention.

News organizations can't suppress the news just so the public doesn't get confused, he said. Word would get out regardless as non-journalists post accounts online.

“So it’s really a test of us as a public,” he said.


Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.

David Bauder, The Associated Press