Once the initial rush of adrenaline subsided a sense of ghoulishness crept over me and settled uneasily in the pit of my stomach. As everyone else was running around, purposeful in their actions, I was relegated to the role of voyeur. They’ve got their job to do, and I’ve got mine, I told myself.
Throughout my career as a journalist and editor, that uneasy sense has arisen time and time again, when confronted by gruesome photos and videos – in the raw – and being responsible for deciding what should be made public and what should not.
The role of journalists and editors as gatekeepers of this kind of material has diminished rapidly in the era of social-media and smartphones. A case in point is the recent video of a young man in Phuket killing his infant daughter, which he posted on Facebook before killing himself – it attracted over 250,000 views before Facebook acted on the Thai Government’s takedown request.
This modern phenomenon gives rise to countless questions about censorship and the stewardship of the media technology which has given everyone, not just media professionals, the ability to both view and disseminate images of the dark realities of life instantly and with few constraints.
Social media behemoths like Facebook and Twitter are scrambling to deal with their new role as gatekeepers, but unlike the former media model the responses are, at least for the time being, reactive not proactive. They claim that they are merely service providers and not responsible for what people post on their social media. But this is belied by the fact that they promptly respond to requests, by both governments and individuals, to censor content on their services.
Given the crucial role these private corporations play in the modern media, and the fact that they can censor content without reason or explanation, we must demand more from them than technocratic “we’re just a service” platitudes. We must vet them in their role as the new gatekeepers and ensure they inform their policies and actions with reference to the best civic and ethical ideals of their forbears.