I’m old enough to remember having only three television networks, each of which provided a nightly news program 30 minutes in length. These were heavily and professionally edited programs, providing the viewers news selected by teams of reporters and editors.
Even after the advent of the 24-hour cable news networks, generally speaking the viewers could expect content that was reviewed, cut and edited—either for clarity, editorial determinations on what was news, or to blur out graphic content. Sometimes, all we’d get is a brief warning: “the content we are about to show you may be disturbing to some people.”
Social media, and Facebook Live in particular, has changed this dynamic. What, if anything, does this unfiltered content mean for the news media—and news consumers?
The Atlantic says this of the role of traditional media in an environment where an individual with a cell phone now has the filming, editorial, and broadcast control over a given situation:
Events of the past week have confirmed the embarrassing degree to which traditional news media has been forced to play a game of 21st-century catch-up: A story is first circulated via social networks, and only later up-streamed into the network news matrix (after which, the footage will get a second life on social media). If the fourth estate isn’t wholly irrelevant in this moment, it’s most certainly a bystander.
The ease with which video content can be recorded and uploaded to the world’s largest social network certainly has played a role in disseminating stories quickly. It also has short-circuited the idea that professionals in an industry determine what rises to the level of news—after all, traffic stops ending in shootings are not a new phenomenon—but national coverage of them is, and it’s social media that has changed this dynamic.
The question that remained somewhat open was “how will Facebook handle this?” After all, this is the organization that due to its policy banning nudity has struggled with breastfeeding pictures and breast cancer survivor photos. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that some interpretation of Facebook’s Community Standards would have graphic or disturbing Live videos pulled outright—even if there was news value or socially important content.
On Friday, July 8, Facebook released a statement that clarified under which conditions graphic video content may be removed.
Interestingly, they cite “context and degree” as the key differentiators in whether a video or live stream will be pulled or remain up for viewing. I think it could plausibly be argued that is roughly the same criteria newsrooms use when determining whether to use footage that may be considered upsetting to viewers. Community members still have the opportunity to flag content, and it will be reviewed by Facebook, which will make the determination to repost or not.
Facebook Live streaming is still fairly new and it will take time to sort out how it’s used by the general public (as opposed to professional news organizations, some of which were at least initially being paid to use it to foster adoption of its use).
As a piece on CNN notes, Facebook is now forced to face what news organizations have struggled with in the past: how much is too much? What are the boundaries that should be enforced, such as live streams of ongoing police work?
From a communicator’s perspective, these are all very interesting questions and challenges, but as the CNN piece points out, they aren’t new questions. However, it is the first time that individual citizens, not trained in journalism, will be facing these issues—and that’s where the potential change is. We will see more raw and potentially compelling footage, of that I’m certain. But it also means we will need to sift through more, and make sense of more without a trained eye walking us through.