I don’t know how many times in my career I’ve heard people complain about the media’s focus on bad news. But it’s more than a handful.
People have accused The Times of covering a story just to get clicks or sell papers. They’ve pitched heartwarming stories by leading in with some version of “the paper’s always full of bad news.” They’ve asked that we only put good news on the front page.
For the record, while The Times likes to sell newspapers, as a part of this community, we’d much prefer to have less bad news to report. And if you’ve got a good, heartwarming story to pitch, just ask; you’ll often find those stories in The Times. You will, however, see bad news on the front page, because when someone is shot and killed, it’s important to those families, to law enforcement and the court system and to our community.
Lately, though, you may have seen the bad news first on Snapchat, or Facebook or YouTube.
Last weekend, the internet gave our community a front row seat to a deadly shooting.
A bystander of the incident at the Buford QuickTrip recorded it on Snapchat, and the video quickly took off on multiple social media platforms.
It was posted more than once in comments on The Times’ Facebook page where the news article had been posted.
That’s where I saw it. And watched it. And then made the decision to hide those comments, which are still viewable to friends of those who posted them but not everyone who sees a Times Facebook post.
The breakneck speed at which graphic content can travel from bystander to the world is astounding, leaving us all to decide what level of bad news we can handle.
Social media companies make a few decisions for us first, with most allowing the content as long as it doesn’t glorify violence.
YouTube’s policies request those posting violent videos provide as much context as possible.
“If posting graphic content in a news, documentary, scientific, or artistic context, please be mindful to provide enough information to help people understand what’s going on,” the policy states. “In some cases, content may be so violent or shocking that no amount of context will allow that content to remain on our platforms. “
Once Facebook is alerted to violent content, it may remove it or place a warning, according to its community standards. In this recent shooting case, as of last week the video was covered with a label reading: “This video may show violent or graphic content.” Wording beneath that stated: “We covered this video so you can decide if you want to see it.”
Meanwhile Snapchat, has some community guidelines that include a prohibition on encouraging violence but don’t seem to otherwise address videos showing violence.
The Times also makes these types of decisions, on our social media outlets but also in the newspaper and on our website.
As a community newspaper, family of a victim or suspect or someone somehow otherwise involved may see that news and reach out to us for information or with their thoughts on how we covered the incident. In other words, we’re often much closer to those involved than giants like Facebook will ever be. Sometimes readers may disagree with what we choose to publish or not publish. Everyone’s sensitivity is different and affected by their degree of separation from what happened.
Most agree, our culture has lost some sensitivity when it comes to violence, though, given the numerous TV crime shows, movies and video games, some much more grizzly than others.
I paused for a moment before watching that video. I felt I needed to watch it to determine how to handle it in our news coverage and on our social media platforms.
It’s hard to forget after watching. Seeing a real shooting that leaves a real person dead and a real family grieving is different than TV.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t watch it; the value of watching and sharing the content depends in part on the motive.
Do we need to watch the shots go off to understand the severity of what happened? Probably not. But we do sometimes need our hearts broken to motivate us to do the hard work that addresses systemic problems in our society.
Before you watch the shots go off, pause. Ask why you want to see it and what good it will do. And before you hit the share button, think even harder.
Social media is a powerful tool for spreading information — tread carefully.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. Her column publishes on Sundays.