Graphic videos spark questions for Facebook, journalism

Graphic videos spark questions for Facebook, journalism
© Screenshot/Diamond Reynolds

Get used to hearing these four words when it comes more graphic, provocative, controversial news stories: Facebook Live, citizen journalism. 

The streaming app Facebook Live that debuted early this year became a household name after the fatal shooting this week of Philando Castile by a Falcon Heights, Minn., police officer during a routine traffic stop. 

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The immediate aftermath of the shooting was not only filmed by Castile’s fiance, Diamond Reynolds — who was also in the car — but broadcast live via the Facebook app. Reynolds’s live stream showed Castile bleeding and lying motionless in the car while she, in a relatively calm fashion, asks the officer why he shot Castile and prays he isn't dead. 

The video has now been seen by more than 5.6 million users. 

One day later, the execution of Dallas police officers by a sniper was filmed by a citizen journalist, Ismael Dejesus, from his hotel room. That content wasn't streamed on Facebook Live, but was shared with news organizations such as CNN. Dejesus was quickly invited on the air by the network to narrate the content of the video in play-by-play fashion with anchor Don Lemon. 

These two horrific events — both shocking to absorb and process at home — are a glimpse at what looks to be the new reality in news: video and audio content captured not by professional crews but by those armed with camera phones that now offer quite good video quality.

In the not-so-distant-past, citizen journalists were a limited number of random people who happened to have a relatively bulky video cameras on them at the time an event was unfolding in front of them — think of the Rodney King beating by police captured on video by citizen journalist George Holliday back in 1991, for example. In 2016, hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. alone can shoot video at a moment's notice. And as apps like Facebook Live and Periscope explode in popularity, so does the ability for anyone to become their own broadcast network.

"The images we've seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his page after the death of Castile. "While I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond's, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important — and how far we still have to go."

But with this power for the masses to broadcast comes great responsibility. There is no filter, no producer, no guidelines to draw a line if something is too graphic or can be used for propaganda purposes. 

Case in point: Last month in a Paris suburb, a 25-year-old Islamic extremist stabbed and killed a police commander in front of his house. The assailant, Larossi Abballa, then entered the commander's home and fatally stabbed his female companion before taking their 3-year-old son hostage. 

During the standoff, Abballa first made demands — and then made the video from inside the home that he posted on his Facebook page. One hour after the video was posted, police stormed the house and killed Abballa while rescuing the child. 

Abballa's Facebook page was shut off, but the news agency of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later posted the video.

"I just killed a police officer and his wife,” Abballa says in the video, before naming other targets on his kill list. 

With 1.65 billion active users, exactly how Facebook can police the activity of all of its members to avoid such videos being posted appears to be impossible. 

Facebook Live. Citizen journalism. 

Both can provide great benefits for news organizations around the world. 

But the unintended consequences of providing a filter-less, unregulated means of broadcasting by the masses is already showing the downsides of such power as well.