“The ethics of live online video” – notes from a panel session at #ijf17

I’ve been at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and here are my notes on a panel session entitled “The ethics of live video” featuring Mark Frankel, Joanna Geary, Ben de Pear and Mandy Jenkins. The session was moderated by Sue Llewellyn/

“You don’t stop being a journalist just because you’ve started live-streaming” – Mark Frankel, social media editor BBC News

Mark Frankel made the point that streaming had been around for a long time, but it was widespread public adoption in the last six or nine months that had really focussed attention. There’s a viewer expectation, he said, that news organisations will go live to breaking news events, but there’s a distinct risk you “descend into voyeurism”. You can invite the audience to “fill their boots” with live coverage for hours – but it can sometimes be something that isn’t valuable, because you aren’t explaining or providing context while you are feeding them the pictures.

Coverage of terror attacks is difficult, because of the inclusion of comments and emojis. It takes seconds from going live to having messages posted where people say they know the identity of the attack, or “Here’s a picture that I’ve got of a dead child” and there is no pre-moderation. This is one of the biggest challenges.

Mark argues “it is more challenging than live television” with the comments and emojis. It is harder to plan that story arc of what you are going to show, and how you are going to show it. The comments can be incredibly destabilising. Unlike live television, where you are just staring down the camera, the expectation the audience have on Facebook is that they will become part of it, and they will direct the camera. “You can tell the exact point that a Facebook Live has lost its audience” from the tone of the comments and the emojis. We’ll often call it a day on a stream when all the emojis start going angry red.

“I’d love to have pre-moderated comments on sensitive topics,” Mark said, “like a green room area for producers and admins”. It would be great to be able to filter out the comments that are potentially defamatory, libellous and troublesome. “Everybody’s comment has a right to appear in some form” he said, but maybe some could be hidden by default. When the BBC goes live, he explains, we can very quickly end up with 3,000 or 5,000 comments – even a room of 200 people couldn’t cope with moderating that in real time.

Journalists need to take on these new formats responsibly, he said. “You don’t stop being a journalist just because you’ve started live-streaming.”

“It’s just television” – Ben de Pear, editor Channel 4 News

Ben de Pear was remarkably frank in his admission that Channel 4 made a huge mistake in live-streaming on Facebook a military advance on Mosul. The feed, which showed military manoeuvres and explosions in the distance, was covered with flying happy emojis and saturated with comments saying “Yay! Kill ISIS”. I have every sympathy with the fact that with so much content across multiple platforms, the first Ben knew was when someone phoned him and said “Ummmm, have you seen?”

On the whole, Ben explained, they use Facebook live to add more context – for example keeping a discussion with Jon Snow running once the bulletin has finished. But Ben was also a little blasé about treating “going live” as a new phenomena. He had worked at Sky News for years where the modus operandi was to go live as soon as anything happened.

They’d also at Channel 4 experimented with broadcasting live North Korean state news on their own website, providing a translation, so it wasn’t totally a new thing. “It’s just television.”

But Ben made the important point that television in the UK is regulated, and that, in some cases, people seem to have forgotten that when broadcasting on Facebook. We can’t have, he argued, one tightly-regulated impartial view of Channel 4 news on the airwaves, and then a completely different behind-the-scenes view where correspondents and presenters are expressing personal opinions. As for those behind-the-scenes streams, Ben said “I don’t think you need to show the viewer exactly how you gather journalism.”

The strangest experience they’d had with live streaming was with Brexit, he said. On the day after the vote, they started live streaming from Westminster. There was a small pro-EU demo nearby. Gradually during the course of the broadcast the protesters moved behind their live position and into shot, and the crowd began to grow. He was fairly certain that this wasn’t a spontaneous display of “the will of the people”, but the fact that people could see they had an opportunity to get their protest on to the news live.

“Do I know enough about what is happening here to pass this along to viewers and the audience?” – Mandy Jenkins, Storyful

Mandy Jenkins said that in some ways it is easier to verify live video than other types, and you are getting more information the longer people are recording. The scope for manipulating the video is more limited. You can reach out to them while they are live – trying to find out what is your connection to the story? What is the motivation here?

In terms of whether you would start using someone’s footage, it is a lot more of a fluid situation than with clips. Lots of factors come into play. The same standards ought to apply, but for some reason this hasn’t crossed some people’s minds when dealing with live. Can you trust that this source is not going to do something irresponsible or dangerous, once they know that they have a much larger audience?

Mandy also explained they’d seen some spates of people filming screens of somebody else’s live stream, and passing it off as them being live at an event. The key questions for Mandy were a lot about the provenance of the video, and the character of the people shooting it. What are they doing here? Are they a interloper who might be trying to cause trouble? Though a lot of live videos are geotagged, you can’t always trust a geotag. On more than one occasion I personally have got over-excited that somebody appears to be live-streaming out of North Korea, only to realise that the geotagging is wrong.

Quality can also be an issue, Mandy explained. She recalls watching a live video of protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline. People in the comments were describing what they could see, and what was happening, but Mandy said: “I am looking at the same live stream and mostly I see water and dust. And maybe people.”

“Really if you can’t get a good look at what is happening in the video,” she sad, “maybe you shouldn’t use it.”

Her question is “Do I know enough about what is happening here to pass this along to viewers and the audience, saying yes, it is happening now, it is happening here. Half the streams on Facebook are just some guy getting high in his car.”

“In live streaming social situations, journalists need to remember their tripartite duty of care” – Joanna Geary, Twitter

Joanna Geary works on Twitter’s curation team, whose job is quite simple – reflect what is happening on Twitter as a platform. They’ve recently added the ability to include Periscope streams in Moments. But Joanna said that, as yet, they’ve only included them as replays. She also pointed out that streaming wasn’t that new a thing – she had been doing it at the Birmingham Post in 2007.

She reminded the audience that in live streaming social situations, journalists need to remember their tripartite duty of care.

  • A duty of care to audience. Do we know who this user is? Do we know where this stream is likely to go?
  • A duty of care to the journalists doing the curating. We are putting our own teams into a situation where we do not in advance what images they may potentially see. We have to be aware there can be a massive effect on people exposed repeatedly to this type of content. I’m definitely feeling the strain of repeatedly viewing footage of terror attacks in breaking news situations.
  • A duty of care to the person filming. You cannot underestimate how unprepared people are when they pull out their phones to capture something that is going to have a huge audience. By using that footage we are changing that situation again for them by bringing them wider attention.

The panel, on the whole, brought to light a lot of potential issues and problems with media companies using live-streaming video. But Joanna pointed out some of the strengths of the format. There are, she said, really good reasons that live video exists, and it can be really positive. Users generally trust it a lot more – although maybe they shouldn’t – but there is a sense of people believing a little bit more of what you can see when it is coming live and unfiltered. It is considered very fast, and modern news consumers expect news their very fast. The caveat, though, is sometimes the journalistic info needed to explain what is going on is more effectively conveyed by another medium.

You can watch the whole of this session online: “The ethics of live video

Find all my blog posts from the 2017 International Journalism Festival.