NEW YORK – "If I'm going to die," the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin said in a 2002 interview, "at least I want it filmed."
He spoke with his usual humor, and clearly had no idea what would happen four years later. But the fact is, a tape does exist of Irwin's fatal encounter with a stingray while filming a TV show. And so the question arises: In the age of instant Web videos, might it get out? And in the broader sense, is making footage of a death public ever justified?
For its part, Discovery Communications, the network where Irwin became a star, said there was absolutely no truth to rumors that the footage, now in possession of police in Queensland, Australia, might be released.
But that doesn't mean there aren't concerns that someone could attempt to get their hands on it and publicize it for lurid means — or just to show they had it. That, said media analyst Martin Kaplan, would be tantamount to a snuff film.
"The only remote justification for publicizing this would be accident prevention," said Kaplan, of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "But that argument is a stretch." Experts say deaths from a stingray encounter are exceedingly rare.
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Irwin died Monday at age 44 after being stabbed in the chest by the stingray's poisonous spine while filming on the Great Barrier Reef.
He was hugely popular in the United States, becoming a star as the "Crocodile Hunter" on Discovery's Animal Planet channel. In an interview with Associated Press Radio in 2002, he discussed his passion for grappling with crocodiles: "That's what my hand and my brains are designed to do," he said with his trademark enthusiasm. "That's what I have to give to the world."
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In the same interview, he noted: "If I'm going to die, at least I want it filmed ... If we blew a million dollars worth of cameras, at least we could have gone to MGM and gone, 'Hey, look at this tape."'
Irwin's manager and close friend, John Stainton, had the painful experience of watching the videotape where Irwin pulls the stingray barb from his chest. He called it "shocking."
"It's a very hard thing to watch, because you are actually witnessing somebody die, and it's terrible," he told reporters.
The fact that a tape exists recalls the death of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who lived among them for a dozen years in Alaska before being fatally mauled in 2003. A video camera with the lens cap on captured the audio of that attack. It is in possession of a friend and has never emerged in public — though in his acclaimed documentary "Grizzly Man," director Werner Herzog was seen listening to it with headphones on.
Samuel G. Freedman, who teaches a media ethics class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says the issue is "whether there is any compelling public interest" in the release of something so shocking as footage of a death. Here, he says, there clearly isn't.
"The lay person is not going into the water trying to have encounters with stingrays," Freedman said. "It would be purely titillation and necrophilia if anyone were to show this."
There are dramatically different cases, Freedman believes, where there is a compelling public interest in having the option — as in the voluntary click of a mouse — to see the reality of a grisly death. To learn the harsh lessons of war, for example, or to witness the brutality of the beheadings by Islamic militants in Iraq — videos that were posted on Web sites used by the militants. (Others have argued that the existence of the militant videos is apalling.)
But those are very particular cases. In general, the explanations fall flat, says Kaplan of the Annenberg School, as when the Italian magazine that recently published a photo of Princess Diana getting oxygen moments after her fatal car crash called it "tender" and "touching."
In an era where almost everything ends up making it to the Web, is it inevitable that such a tape as that of Irwin's death would emerge?
"Only in the sense that there's a race for the bottom in our culture," Kaplan says. "This will take substantial vigilance on the part of the family."