Saturday 17 March 2018

Social is where you'll see the blood on the floor. Broadcast is history

When a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas last week, multiple Facebook and Twitter users streamed the shootings.
When a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas last week, multiple Facebook and Twitter users streamed the shootings.
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Facebook started ramping up its live video product earlier this year. "Facebook Live enables you to share your experiences and perspectives in real time, with the people who matter to you," the social network gushed.

And it's not the only one at it. Twitter has Periscope, its own video streaming tool which promises to let users experience the world through someone else's eyes.

But they got something they didn't bargain for: sometimes seeing the world through someone else's eyes is a traumatic experience.

This is especially so when those people are committing crimes or involved in disturbing events. The eyewitness accounts that technology has made possible - whether live, or recorded - can make for difficult viewing

In June, a terrorist started streaming live video after he killed a French police officer and the officer's partner. In the broadcast, he wondered what to do with his hostage - the couple's three-year-old son - and pledged his allegiance to Isil.

On July 5, footage emerged of an unarmed Alton Sterling being subdued and shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Less than two days later, Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to broadcast a video of her fiance Philando Castile dying behind the wheel of his car. He was shot by police in Minneapolis, having been pulled over for a broken tail-light.

When a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas last week, multiple Facebook and Twitter users streamed the shootings.

Now this probably isn't how social networks envisaged people using live video streaming. And they've been fairly quick to respond. Facebook has deleted the video of the French terrorist, while the clips from videos by Diamond Reynolds and those who filmed the Dallas ambush now carry an alert that says: 'Warning - Graphic Video. Videos that contain graphic content can shock, offend and upset. Are you sure you want to see this?'

Live streaming can be pitched as an important step in empowering citizen journalists. They can capture injustices and hold institutions to account in ways never before possible. It's a reverse panopticon effect: instead of the watchful eye of the state on the masses, the masses can now look back - and hit the record button when they don't like what they see.

This poses an ethical question for anyone with a smartphone who witnesses a shooting, or a fire or any potential tragic event. They have a choice. Run for cover? Help? Or get the phone out and start broadcasting?

But while live video may force eye-witnesses to ask themselves difficult questions, it's a minefield for media.

First, they need clear guidelines around how they use user-generated footage. And many do. The BBC, the Guardian and the Online News Association all have guidelines around social news gathering and user-generated content. They stress that contributors shouldn't endanger themselves, nor others, and neither should they infringe any laws.

Second, they need to be aware that every time they rely on user-generated videos, live or recorded, they are implicitly reminding the audience that news breaks best on social channels and the most immediate and impactful visuals come from a bystander with a phone, rather than a cameraman with a shoulder-mounted camera.

Sure, there will always be a place for professional journalists - whether broadcast, print or online - to add the context, interpretation and intelligence to the facts. After all, it's one thing to see handheld footage of American riot police baton-charge a rally in Baton Rouge. It's entirely another to understand the background to the Black Lives Matter movement, and how it has evolved since the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Regardless, live video is eating away at the power of broadcast news. Now, when news breaks, it breaks on social channels. Broadcast is history.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Live streaming also offers media outlets interesting ways to develop news stories.

Following the Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12, BBC News used Facebook Live to vox pop a crowd of hundreds who lined up outside an Orlando blood bank to donate blood.

Covering the same story, the New York Times used Facebook Live to stream a Q&A with Norman Casiano, who was shot in the back during the attack at the club. The clip has been viewed over 1.5 million times and has amassed tens of thousands of likes and shares.

So perhaps media outlets need to be thinking if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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