Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons
Social media ignited Sunday afternoon when news broke that a man in Cleveland streamed a video of himself on Facebook allegedly shooting an elderly person. The crime is part of an ongoing challenge for news organizations and social media companies.
The challenge is different for each of the entities, however.
News organizations are tasked with taking in raw material and determining what, when and how to describe and show that information. In this and similar cases, journalists are challenged by several factors, including:
- The raw material is graphic.
- The raw material often cannot be verified.
- The raw material is likely available online.
- The family of the victim(s) may not know of the crime.
Before the internet, modern journalists didn’t often come into contact with graphic material to use with stories. Additionally, they often heard of crimes from official sources that could verify material and knew whether the family of the victim was notified. Plus, graphic images, video or audio weren’t circulating in public.
The instinct of many people – including journalists – is to share what is publicly available, but the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes a clear statement by saying “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”
Some news organizations and journalists take the position that they should not hide information from the public, but that’s a ridiculous stance. One of the central missions of journalism is to distill the world into concise reports that tell the public what information they need in their day to day lives.
Journalists in the 20th century decided those who were part of their profession should act ethically while fulfilling that mission. The current version of SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”
There will never be one answer for how journalists and news organizations deal with video of crimes streamed online, but taking the time to think beyond access of material to the responsible retelling and synthesis will lead to much better decisions than have been made in the past.
The challenge for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is somewhat different, but the answers are not.
Unlike journalists who get the opportunity to pause before publishing information, social media companies are more like newsstands that allow any person to put their information or publication on display. Except, the companies have more control than many people think.
The people in charge of Facebook and Twitter clearly care about what happens on their platforms. Otherwise, Facebook wouldn’t prioritize some content over others and Twitter wouldn’t weed out certain notifications or posts.
While these companies historically shut down any claim or notion that they are media companies or news organizations, they can’t be so ignorant to the fact that they exist in the same orbit. In that case, they can find answers within SPJ’s Code of Ethics, too.
If Facebook can prioritize an advertisement or post, the company can also put protections in place that will prevent the abuse of their platforms and tools. The same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and the rest.
Again, there will likely be no one answer for every company, but the people in charge must at least try to prevent members of the public from using their platforms and tools for sinister purposes while allowing others to use those same elements for good.
These problems are not going away. Fortunately, there is still time to address them before they get out of hand.
Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of SPJ’s ethics committee.