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Published on June 15th, 2016 | by EJC

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Streaming The News: The Opportunities And Dangers Of Live Streaming For Journalism

Live streaming applications like Periscope or Meerkat have been around for some time, but lately social media giants Facebook and now YouTube are making a huge push into the area. While all live applications are widely used for entertainment or social communication, they also hold a great potential for journalistic live coverage. Of course, live coverage in general is nothing new since mobile crews and transportable equipment have provided on-the-spot reporting for decades. However, a mobile phone with a live streaming application certainly brings new functions and possibilities; they are more flexible to use, only require a single person to produce content, and can be transported nearly everywhere.  Another benefit is that the filmed material reaches the audience unfiltered and in real time. Live streaming for journalists is especially handy for events that are unfolding quickly, allowing them to share breaking news and information as it happens.

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Different applications, different strengths. Footage of Periscope Live Streaming.

Periscope, Facebook Live or YouTube Connect? Journalists can now choose between a number of different platforms to live stream videos. The biggest player in the game of immediate live streaming is Twitter’s Periscope. In August 2015, only four months after its launch, the company had already surpassed 10 million accounts. A big pro for Periscope is its interconnectivity with a user’s Twitter profile. Periscope gives the user an option to tweet a notification, letting their followers know that they are about to go live. In times of measurable user reach this is an advantage to journalists who already have made a name for themselves on Twitter, as they can easily gather large groups of followers on their Periscope streams. Periscope also offers the possibility for users to immediately react to the action in the live stream by posting questions or remarks that the uploader sees on their screen in real time. Although this might come in handy for journalists who want to create more interactive news content; filming, reading and reacting to user comments with one mobile device is not very easy for journalists, especially in emergency situations, where events can change drastically within seconds, and the focus should be on accurate reporting instead of user participation.

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Facebook Live on the mobile application.

Facebook Live lets Facebook users stream live videos up to 90 minutes. As they are eager to raise awareness for their relatively new feature, Live videos are currently ranked very high in users’ news feeds. In addition, Facebook also updated their mobile application and created an entire new space for Live videos. This YouTube-like section can be seen as an advantage over Periscope, as new audiences can be reached when users discover journalists’ streams in the Live section of the app without having to follow them. Facebook Live’s most notable point of difference is the ability for video to be retrieved at any time and its integration with other features of the app. Whereas streams on Periscope can only be seen in the very moment that they are broadcast, Facebook added the feature of making their streams available after they are live. This is a major advantage for journalists, who can reach audiences beyond time zones and momentary availability.

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Live Streams on YouTube.

With Youtube Connect, Google is the latest media giant to launch a standalone live streaming service. Although not yet available, the application is supposed to have similar features to Facebook Live and Periscope. This new platform seems especially interesting for Journalists who are successful Youtubers and have built a large audience on their YouTube Channel already. Via the new live service, users would not have to leave YouTube, and thus it could be easier to retain high numbers of viewers for the live streams.

Why use live streaming?

Applications like Periscope and Facebook Live are technological platforms can assist journalists reporting from a live event or an emergency situation either by broadcasting the reporting itself or by looking for unfolding information on other people’s live streams – say, in a crisis situation to get a picture of what is happening in the environment of the actual emergency. German BILD Reporter Paul Ronzheimer was one of the first journalists to produce exclusive news content on periscope. His coverage of interviews with refugees reached a large audience through the application. This example also illustrates how live streaming provides new opportunities for interviews, allowing the audience to ask questions in real-time. Using live streaming in this sense helps to create an interactive journalistic experience that elevates users from mere spectators to participants.

The fact that anyone with a smartphone can produce their own broadcasting channel is arguably a revolutionary step towards the decentralization of media power, concentrated in the hands of very few corporations and governments around the world. Especially in countries with less developed media landscapes, live streaming apps can have a transformative power for journalists. In rural areas, journalists, as well as citizens, are now able to share their stories and impressions to both local and international audiences. Take Syrian news Channel Damascus News Network, for instance.  This capacity to report unfiltered content is even more crucial in countries where regimes censor or influence media outlets.

Yet, there are a large number of technical and ethical considerations that journalists must take into account before committing to a live stream. First of all, as easy as the process of taking out your phone and pressing the red recording button may seem, this alone still doesn’t produce a “good“ report. It requires a stable internet connection to function flawlessly and low-bandwidth might cause the stream to be interrupted or produce low quality image and sound.  Since filming occurs on the phone, reporting from live streaming apps can require switching between the front and back camera, depending on whether the journalist is commenting to camera or if they are shooting footage of the events happening. As mentioned earlier, it might seem beneficial that there is no longer the need to time-consumingly edit video footage into a report, but this could also be considered as a drawback in ethical terms. Live streaming takes away the chance to reconsider, evaluate and journalistically assess news content. Traditional broadcasting, especially if not live, always operates in conjunction with an editorial board, researchers, and technical experts, whereas with live streaming the reporter is on their own. Also, and this very important in crisis coverage, an image once shown, can’t be undone. People’s identities cannot be obscured, their faces not blurred or blocked and filming victims goes against accepted ethical codes. Furthermore, the journalist has to be careful not to disturb or interfere with police or medical action in crisis situations. In the midst of the Brussels lockdown that followed the Paris attacks, for example, the police asked users to stop tweeting or live streaming about any operations taking place in Brussels, as they could also be read by the terrorists who were still on the run. While most trained journalists would refrain from filming ethically difficult material, live streaming applications present a unique risk when used by citizen journalists in terms of this moral codex.

So should journalists use live streaming applications for their news coverage? Here’s a pro and con list to help you decide:

Pros

  • Unfiltered Video Streaming: There is no censorship involved. Journalists can provide their audience with first hand images of live events.
  • Immediacy: Real news, in real time, delivered directly to the audience.
  • Flexibility: All that is needed is a smartphone and journalists are able to report from anywhere in the world – as long as there is a stable internet connection.
  • Potential positive impact for developing countries: News content can be produced very easily and cheaply with live streaming apps. This makes it affordable for smaller media outlets and freelance journalists, especially in rural areas or developing countries.
  • Audience engagement: Periscope and Facebook Live both provide the feature for direct feedback – useful for audience questions, especially in interview situations.
  • Empowering citizen journalists: Entirely free from camera teams or editorial boards, citizen journalists can stream live events to their followers.

Cons

  • No editorial control: Quality journalism rests on a foundation of journalistic values and ethics. Live streaming the news takes away the editorial control of reassessing, fact-checking and researching for a deeper understanding and dedication to the truth.
  • No control over what could happen in live crisis situations: Especially if the outcome of an emergency situations is unclear, in the case of a terror attack or a natural disaster for instance, live streaming the events can lead to unfiltered footage of victims or their families being broadcast.
  • Dependency on internet connections: While wireless internet connection is mostly stable in western countries, it is hard to secure live streaming in more rural areas or in developing countries. Also, especially in emergency situations where large crowds of people are trying to access social media feeds the internet connection is likely lack of speed and stability. In the case of a natural disaster the infrastructure in a certain region might be so damaged that the internet goes down all together.
  • Potential interference with emergency operations: Following the Paris attacks, the French police had to ask Twitter users to refrain from tweeting or periscoping the events in front of the Bataclan, as the terrorists could have access to the footage as well. In emergency situations it is more important to guarantee that police and other action forces can work without interference from journalists.

About the Author:

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Felix Hain is an intern at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht. He studied Politics and American Studies and is currently enrolled in the Master’s program Media Culture at Maastricht University. Before working at the EJC, Felix gained experience in television and print media working for German media outlets Bayerischer Rundfunk, Talpa Germany, BILD and Main Post. 

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