There's been an awful lot of discussion about the role of Facebook on journalism these days. I'm actually a lot less concerned
than many who have been complaining that Facebook's growing importance is somehow "dangerous" for the future of news. The simple fact is that a huge percentage
of people (especially young people) currently get their news via Facebook. But, at the very least, we should be concerned when Facebook starts to play the role of the arbitrary editor, simply deleting stories it doesn't like.
Jim MacMillan, a photojournalist who is currently the Assistant Director for the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University happened upon a somewhat tragic scene last month, of a 68-year-old woman struck and killed
by one of those "Duck Boats" (the rickety half bus/half boat things that are -- for reasons I still don't get -- popular with tourists). The story made headlines in part because of claims that the woman was too focused on her mobile device to notice that she was walking in the road against the traffic light.
MacMillan just happened to be there, and while he notes that he's been out of the "breaking news" photojournalism business for years, he recognized an opportunity and snapped a few photographs and posted them to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
The reason that I only linked to the Twitter version is because the other ones are gone. According to MacMillan, Facebook silently deleted the other two
with no explanation:
I posted the photo to my Instagram account and clicked the button to share to Facebook. But while discussing the incident with a colleague last night, I scrolled back and discovered that both posts had been deleted.
MacMillan notes that he was careful to post a photo that did not show the actual body, but rather the police putting up the tarp:
In the most recent incident, I saw the victim’s body between the right, rear wheels and it was clear that she was dead, but I posted a more sensitive picture of police on the other side of the vehicle and captioned it only to say: “Police hang a tarp after a person was caught under #RideTheDucks boat at 11th and Arch just now. Looks very serious.”
We do things like this to eliminate the possibility that loved ones will learn of the death from anyone but official sources and to spare viewers the traumatic effects of graphic imagery whenever possible. In other words, I was operating conservatively within standard practices of photojournalism.
That was my best effort to be sensitive to the victim while responsible to the public's right to know that there had been another fatal accident involving a Ride the Ducks boat.
As MacMillan notes, it's particularly ridiculous that Facebook didn't even inform him of this or give him any chance to respond or protest the silent deletion of his journalistic work:
But why would Facebook take down this image? Who might have complained? And shouldn’t I have been offered the opportunity to respond?
In an update, MacMillan notes that people from Facebook are claiming they have no record of a takedown at all -- leading MacMillan to wonder
if he really posted them at all
if some sort of technical glitch may be to blame. Yet, he also notes that the way it got onto Twitter was because he has an IFTTT recipe that reposts all his Instagram/Facebook posts to Twitter. The fact that the image is on Twitter certainly suggests he did, in fact, post them to Facebook. Either way, there are legitimate concerns about how Facebook's policy works in terms of taking down stories. The company has certainly had problems in the past
, and this is going to be a concern going forward. You're relying on someone else's platform, and they can do what they want with it.
While I'm less worried than many others about Facebook's impact on journalism, it does seem like the company really ought to very, very clear and transparenty how it handles taking down content. Many other sites make sure that they, at the very least, inform users of any takedowns and even provide clear processes for challenging the decision. Here, assuming MacMillan is correct, the content was just removed. If the content really was just removed, it should call into question the credibility of journalism found on Facebook.