What does Facebook Live mean for journalism?

In April Facebook Live was launched, allowing users to broadcast live and tap the social media giant’s colossal audience. But it was last week, as the world now knows, that Facebook Live had its watershed, technology-transforming-history moment in the broadcast of Philando Castile’s lying injured and dying as filmed and narrated by his girlfriend after he was shot by a police officer.

To understand what Facebook Live might mean for newsrooms, Storybench sat down with Northeastern University journalism professors Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey.

What does Facebook Live mean for journalism?

Kennedy:  Live presents the same dilemma for news organizations that new services offered by Facebook always do: You can’t ignore the vast audience Mark Zuckerberg and company have assembled. But their interests are not necessarily the same as those of news organizations trying to figure out how to survive at a time that the financial climate for journalism continues to deteriorate. Facebook isn’t evil. (Well, OK. Sometimes it is.) But its executives’ sole ambition is to attract as large an audience as possible and to keep that audience on the site for as long as possible. If they can do that with news, they’re happy to do it. If other types of content, such as vacation photos posted by friends, prove more popular, then they’ll shift their algorithms without hesitation — as, in fact, they did just recently.

Wihbey:  I think the rise of Facebook Live as a tool for citizen journalism – maybe we should call it just “self-reporting” – is actually good for mainstream media. This may sound strange, but a lot of news content is boring, repackaged or just taken from press releases. Facebook Live could be a good conduit for generating a wider variety of compelling story topics, maybe even more diverse ones, and important leads for news media to follow.

How will Facebook Live measure up to other live streaming apps like Periscope? Hasn’t this been tried before?

Wihbey:  I think that Facebook Live may beat out Periscope partially because of better functionality and user interface qualities. But at the end of the day, yes, there are classic network effects at work: A live video streamed on Facebook can enter much larger and denser social networks more quickly, allowing it to cascade across the population. That said, it’s important to remember that public attention is very hard to get. The majority of very worthy videos will never be seen by more than a few people. We shouldn’t be fooled that every injustice will now surface and come to the immediate attention of the mass public and policymakers.

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Is there potential for censorship with Facebook Live? Facebook hasn’t always been good to news organizations.

Kennedy:  Facebook doing what’s best for Facebook isn’t censorship, but it does underscore how little control news organizations have over how and even whether their journalism is seen. Several years ago a number of news organizations, including The Washington Post and The Guardian, went all-in on a Facebook initiative called Social Reader and built large audiences around that product. Without warning, Facebook drastically changed the way Social Reader content was displayed, and those audiences virtually disappeared.

Wihbey:  I think the potential for censorship on Facebook is a valid concern. I think it would be smart of Facebook, given their deep pockets, to hire a substantial news team comprised of veteran reporters and editors, as well as thoughtful legal and technical experts, who could oversee curation of user-generated content. Alex Kantrowitz at BuzzFeed recently pointed out that the public doesn’t get any information if content on Facebook Live is removed.

So Facebook needs to be more transparent about its editorial decisions?

Wihbey:  I think Facebook should provide regular and running commentary on their editorial decisions and build up a large body of decisions that could be reviewed by the public and commented upon. Perhaps a wiki-style conversation about what we, as a public, want to see in our new digital public square. Facebook has been playing defense on these fronts. I’d love to see them lead.

What are the ways that reporters can harness Facebook Live? Or should they be focusing efforts elsewhere?

Wihbey:  I think the best way for reporters to harness this is to continue to use it to build their social audiences and brands as reporters. In the social era, news consumers increasingly want to see reporters and editors as real people, not faceless bylines, and tools like Facebook Live facilitate that shift. As for reposting user-generated videos, news organizations have been facing these decisions for quite a while now, and most have editorial policies and professional decision-making procedures in place. That isn’t new territory.

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Kennedy:  It’s hard work, but every news organization’s strategy with regard to Facebook should be to drive its users to its own website and apps, where it has full control over advertising and digital subscriptions. It has been possible for years now to display live video on your own platforms, and many news organizations do just that. They should double down on those efforts rather than outsource video to a behemoth they can’t control and whose business interests do not coincide with their own.

What will be the long-term impact of Facebook Live?

Wihbey:  I think the biggest effect of live-streaming on social media – and a variety of other tools that put mass broadcast power in the hands of individuals – is that, for a while, the world will seem overwhelmingly messed up. Why? It’s because we can finally see all of the injustices, mayhem and the messiness of the world. Take the issue of police brutality and conflicts with racial minorities. This has been going on for a very long time; but now we see it. It feels like the world is going downhill. But really what’s happening is that we are awakening to social ills and bad things for the first time. They have always been there. I’m hopeful that policymakers can be activated to address these things, but there’s always the danger that the chaos can produce either apathy and indifference or some sort of knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t really address the issue at hand.

Photo: Gratisography.

Aleszu Bajak and Dina Kraft
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