Eyewitnesses and social media: Is there a better way?
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Eyewitnesses and social media: Is there a better way?

Image courtesy of Fergus Bell/Dig Deeper Media

One eyewitness tweeted a video of sirens and gunfire from downtown Dallas and received more than 200 requests from reporters. Can the media find a collective way to make this more manageable?

When a gunman opened fire on police officers at a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas ten days ago, the city devolved into chaos. As with any breaking news event, especially one in a city centre, eyewitnesses were quick to upload footage from the scene.

One in particular struck a chord.

Since the events in Dallas @allisongriz has made her account private, changing the selfie which previously greeted visitors to her profile to a picture of a Texas police badge. Within 24 hours her video – of gunfire and sirens punctuating the Texas dusk, accompanied by comments that she hopes the “people lying down” are “just hiding” – had received more than 70,000 retweets.

Among the shocked comments from Twitter users were requests from reporters and journalists for contact and permission to use the video. More than 200 of them in the first 12 hours.

Below are all the requests we found in that time after the video was filmed. They continued for days afterwards. Individually, the vast majority of reporters are doing everything right: most are courteous and considerate in contacting @allisongriz, doing their best to report the news their audiences want in the manner in which they’ve been trained.

But collectively they become unmanageable. Before social media, the world’s reporters could not cross the police line while events were still unfolding, or descend on a single witness while shots were still being fired. The sheer volume of requests raises a whole load of legal and ethical questions:

  • In this instance, @allisongriz seemed to be a safe distance from the shooters. But in many cases, especially school shootings, a gunman may be prowling the halls while witnesses cower in their classrooms. Constant notifications may be a distraction for an eyewitness or even alert the shooter to the witness’s position.
  • It is very easy to triangulate @allisongriz’s position from the visual information in the video. Shooters are increasingly monitoring their crimes on social media as events unfold and news organisations have the power to distribute a video to a far wider audience than it would reach alone. Again, this could put the witness in danger.
  • With every instance of this kind, public opinion towards the media sours. Reporters get angry kickback from other social media users for a perceived lack of sensitivity and all the hard work and resources put into building up a news organisation’s brand can be undone. This is especially true when multiple reporters from one organisation all contact one source, as can be seen below.
  • Fair use and public interest may trump copyright in the short term, but only for a matter of days. A simple, tweeted “yes” from an eyewitness is not legally binding and can be retracted at any time. And copyright claims can prove very, very expensive.
  • Eyewitnesses are increasingly moving to private networks and chat apps to share footage with their friends, a move that could be due to the unmanageable levels of contact from journalists in breaking news situations. This not only makes finding the original source very difficult, but also risks this kind of eyewitness footage disappearing from use in news.

This wasn’t an isolated incident – the same has been happening in ever-larger numbers for a number of years now and has happened since, in Nice and Turkey. These are problems the industry faces together, like so many others brought by constant technological change. And at present there is no better way of reporting on breaking news events when some of the best footage is filmed by eyewitnesses at the scene. It’s just where the industry is at right now. 

Check out: How can journalists better protect eyewitnesses on social media during breaking news?

Commentators have previously written about the phenomenon of journalists piling on one source on social media in this manner. That’s just “how the sausage gets made” wrote Mark Joyella after the shooting at Umpqua Community College last October. And he’s right. But that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out a better way to do it.

Can news organisations work together to pool footage from eyewitnesses? Maybe, but future use and archive rights then become an issue. Could social networks add an extra layer of options in breaking news situations to help journalists access content? The technology is certainly there, but the motivation may not be. Can news organisations communicate better internally to stop multiple requests from one outlet? That would definitely reduce the number of requests and increase chances of a response. Could eyewitnesses add a #usefornews hashtag to newsworthy pictures to avoid such requests? Possibly, although making sure it is both known and used by hundreds of millions of people is an enormous challenge.

There are other potential options, to be sure. One of the reasons First Draft was established was to work with news organisations to try to find answers to these questions. We don’t have anything solid yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Those requests in full:


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