How Facebook Live Is Changing Broadcast Journalism

The Social Network Blurs the Line Between Reporter and Activist

We’ve got ourselves a bit of an active morning so far so I thought I’d jump on Facebook. Been trying to answer a bunch of questions some folks have about where this is, what’s happening at this point, so…”

That’s how Justin Stapleton began his address to people in Houston as severe weather moved into the city. After being hit by major flooding, Stapleton, the weekend meteorologist for local news station KPRC2, fired up Facebook Live, the social network’s streaming video service, and would stay online for the next 90 minutes. Behind the scenes of his channel’s studio, perched in front of a bank of monitors showing colour radar images of the cloudy skies, he and a colleague took people through the weather patterns coming through the city and how they would be affected. The questions came fast on Facebook. Comments bubbled up, thumbs and hearts and Wows whizzed by. It didn’t take long for residents to wonder how their neighbourhoods could withstand any further damage from the storms. Stapleton did his best to keep up with the deluge, dishing out updates and answering questions. Live had made him equal parts news anchor, traffic cop, and nature’s oracle.

A screengrab of Stapleton’s Facebook Live video alongside user comments.

This is just one of countless examples of Facebook Live demonstrating its journalism prowess. Stories of all kinds lend themselves to video, and adding a live component to the broadcast makes each more compelling. It imbues the video with a sense of immediacy, spontaneity, even fun, with comments and emojis flying over the screen like colourful music notes. But that interactivity cuts both ways. When things turn serious, when news breaks and bad things happen, those same features that make Live enjoyable and distinguish it from traditional live television also add a new found sense of urgency, and questions of safety and ethics arise. From natural disasters to terrorist attacks, do journalist shoulder a responsibility beyond simply telling the story as it unfolds in front of them? It is not a new problem, of course, but with its extensive reach, Facebook socializes the question like never before. By making the live broadcast a two-way act, journalists must now navigate the situation unfolding in front of them in the world as well as the dozens or hundreds of people asking for help on the screen. In the midst of an emergency, their cries may be impossible to ignore. Until now, Facebook has been reluctant to embrace this side of its platform. The debut of Live news, however, may force it to move faster before something breaks.

Facebook began testing live video streaming in the United States last year, inviting select brands, celebrities and journalists to try the new feature. In January, it committed to rolling it out globally. As Mark Zuckerberg noted at this year’s F8 conference, video will play a pivotal role in the platform’s growth over the next decade, in a two-pronged attempt to enfold more people into the platform. For users, it gives each a powerful and simple way to broadcast live video to their entire social graph, and for brands and advertisers, they can now not only share live video with all those connected to their page, but also unlock powerful new insights into their audiences. At a time when Facebook user-generated content is falling, anything that stimulates the sharing of stories and the selling of ad space will find its way in front of the billion people on the network, even if it’s just a new Like button. That much is assured.

Introducing Live video means introducing live emergencies.

What is less certain, however, is how Facebook will deal with issues of safety. It is a question that the recent crop of livestreaming services has no good answer for. Just last month, a girl used Periscope to broadcast someone’s rape. Other crimes have also been streamed, anything from petty theft to domestic violence and attempted murder. These are certainly not the stories the giants of social media had in mind when rolling out the new feature. And yet, not Facebook, nor Meerkat, nor Yeti, nor Twitter, which owns Periscope, have devised a way to address these safety concerns as they play out. Safety is an afterthought, with a minimal set of tools that often causes more stress on victims than offering protection. There is no shield. It is a tension that has persisted since social networking was first launched.

Facebook’s timid approach to safety is well documented. When the network first launched it had only a rudimentary system in place to help people manage their online relationships with friends and classmates. For the first several years, Facebook routinely caught flak for changing its opaque privacy settings far too often, leading to worries that private content could accidentally be made public, a concern that still lingers across the network. As it grew, more tools were added, such as content flagging, more privacy settings, and two-factor authentication. Processes were automated to deal with the influx of reports by a user base that was expanding exponentially. And yet, no matter how quickly the company said it was moving, it always seemed to be too little, too late. Insults and harassment persisted, instances of cyberstalking and identity theft swelled, aided in part by Facebook’s real name policy. On the fringes, away from friends’ baby pictures and graduation announcements, weapons and drugs were illegally bought and sold. Any place where 1.6 billion people congregate will attract bad behaviour, but Facebook just didn’t seem willing to apply the same considered approach to safety tools as it did to its core products. Helping users cope with the negatives of their experience was always an afterthought.

The major exception to this first appeared in 2011, when safety itself became the product. Following the disastrous tsunami that struck the coast of Japan, a group of Facebook engineers set out to leverage the network’s size, scale and scope to give people an easy way to confirm their safety in the wake of future disasters. The result was Safety Check, a simple interface that lets users confirm their well-being in the aftermath of tragedy. Unlike previous attempts that put the onus on the user to lock down their experience on Facebook with preventive measures like blocking, Safety Check is a proactive measure. It socializes safety, radiating from Facebook out, not from the user in. It’s first major deployment came during the Nepal earthquake last year and has been used sporadically since then, most notably in November during the terrorist attack in Paris in which 130 people were killed. That marked the first time the tool had been activated during a non-natural or “man made” disaster scenario, and continues to be used to great effect by people around the world.

An example of Safety Check on Facebook for iOS.

Safety Check demonstrates two key structural points about Facebook as an institution and a tool. At an institutional level, it shows Facebook has the power to build safety into its products’ DNA. This is a marked checkpoint for the service, accepting individuals’ safety as an implication of the company’s tremendous reach and communicative prowess. And just as importantly, it demonstrates a desire on behalf of the people using Facebook to use it when they are danger. When they are at their most vulnerable, people across the world instinctively turn to Facebook because it is the quickest way to signal to the people they care about they are safe. Safety Check shows Facebook is beginning to take its responsible and ethical role more seriously, and that, when committed, the company can actually design meaningful tools that help people caught in dangerous situations.

Which brings us back to Live. Introducing Live video means introducing live emergencies. But Facebook will not be the one to endure the gravity of any given situation. More often than not, it will be those who are at the scene, filming it as it unfolds, who will bear the emotional brunt of those in need, watching. As more news content is pushed to Facebook directly, journalists will be the ones who face reality head on in a way that they hadn’t really had to contend with before. Instead of simply serving a news story to a captive audience, Live lets the audience talk back. In high-stress situations, reporters will find themselves having to triage calls for help along with wanting more information from people desperate for assistance.

Safety Check is a proactive measure. It socializes safety, radiating from Facebook out, not from the user in.

As it is now, Live’s infrastructure does little to assuage any of these concerns. Unlike Safety Check, it is purely a product designed by Facebook to best perform in ideal conditions: a visit to the beach, sightseeing on vacation or skiing down a mountainside. Like so many features to come before it, Live does not seem to consider any of the negatives that can stem from its use. Or if it does, it disregards them with the assumption that the current safety tools — blocking, reporting, etc. — are adequate to get the job done. They’re not. If Facebook Live catches on in the way the company hopes it will, it must empower users to manage any potential emergencies that they are sure to film. Journalists reporting live from the scene of a natural disaster, for instance, should be given a broad suite of tools from Facebook that allow them to better communicate emergency information from within the Live broadcast. This could cut down on misinformation, satisfy users’ demand for details, and enhance the journalistic integrity of the feature in a way that traditional media and even other social networks cannot match. Moreover, it would help limit the stress placed upon journalists in already trying situations.

Back in Houston, the fallout from the flooding continued to rack up on Stapleton’s video, along with inquiries as to when help would arrive. The video is low quality, janky, unpolished and unfiltered, like a home movie that was never supposed be on prime time. But it’s helpful, vital and happening now. It’s a brief glimpse of what may be one future of journalism on the platform, turning the social network into a social safety net for people who rely on it as their primary source of news around the world, and their own backyards.

“The good news is this should be clearing over the next 15 minutes,” he says.

“But we’ll stay on the air, in fact we may stay on a little later past 7 o’clock just given the folks that are out of power. And I’ll make sure that we’re still on Facebook here as well. Since a lot of you don’t have power, this is the only way you can get information. We understand.”