Unfiltered Live Online Video Shows the Need for Journalists

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As I write this on Feb. 1, both the U.S. and Europe are in the midst of more political uncertainty than they’ve experienced at any time in recent memory. In the U.S., it seems we can’t go more than a couple hours without an announcement coming from the White House that, depending on one’s perspective, either weakens the very foundation on which American democracy stands or takes another step toward returning the country to its former glory. In Europe, the U.K. Parliament just voted to move forward the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which will trigger Brexit.

Add to that rumblings of war coming from China, and it’s not hyperbole—nor is it technically violating Godwin’s law—to say that the world is as unstable and unpredictable as at any time since the 1930s. These are exciting and, many would argue, frightening times.

This is why it feels so odd, as I sit and reflect upon the state of online video for this annual Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook, to realize that our industry has reached a plateau and things are as stable and steady as they’ve ever been. Online video is the new normal in the enterprise and education, and connected devices like the Roku and Apple TV are no longer curiosities. Sure, we still have to explain what “OTT” is now and again, but just about everyone is familiar with the concept, if not the acronym.

In fact, OTT has become so commonplace that Facebook has announced that it’s building an app for connected devices, and the new president announced his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court via Facebook Live. Broadcast and cable networks also carried the announcement, but the Facebook Live stream allowed the president and his administration to deliver the message without network commentary.

That “unfiltered” approach might seem refreshing, but—combined with the new administration’s hostility toward the media, which includes forbidding staffers to speak on CNN—I find it to be a troubling precedent. Granted, while the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is a big deal, the actual announcement of that nomination is fairly innocuous, and people who watched it on Facebook surely found no shortage of commentary as soon as they moved to TV or another website (or elsewhere on Facebook, for that matter).

But the stakes could be considerably higher, and if government entities start to favor straight-to-the-viewer channels like Facebook Live over traditional media outlets (the ones staffed with, you know, journalists) we will see the traditional role of the press— to report the truth, not just parrot what a politician says—dwindle even further than it already has. I’m not worried about a dearth of commentary; there’s no shortage of that these days. I’m talking about reporting and analysis that doesn’t assume that whatever comes out of the mouths of political leaders (of any party or political stripe) is something simply to be relayed to the public without challenge.

If Facebook and Twitter are now media companies, perhaps it’s time for them to hire well-trained, well-educated reporters to contextualize events and call out blatant lies that are shared via those platforms’ live streaming. Facebook has made some strides on this front in its move to let users flag “fake news,” but we’ve seen that term get co-opted to simply mean “news that doesn’t conform to my preconceived idea of what’s right.”

That’s not to say that there’s no place for unfiltered video; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Live streaming platforms have given citizens the ability to share video of everything from the Arab Spring to all the horrible examples of police brutality we’ve seen over the last year—things that were always happening, but were rarely caught on camera and watched by millions. But even those things demand further reporting and investigation by journalists.

Now that online video and OTT are growing up, it’s time for the platforms that deliver them to start acting like it.

This article was published in the Spring 2017 European edition of Streaming Media magazine.

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