5. The wildcard: social media

Journalists recognize that their job as gatekeepers is less concrete than even a decade ago because of social media. “I was the lineup editor of The National. Nothing got on The National unless I said it got on The National,” Bulgutch says. “But now, if I don’t put something on The National, people can walk around me easily.” Social media and the proliferation of graphic content on the internet, explains Bulgutch, adds another dimension that producers must consider:

Read the transcript

It’s almost certain that graphic content will be available somewhere on the Internet to anyone who knows where to look for it. On the one hand, as Bulgutch explains, it can make erring on the side of caution a more attractive option, given that broadcasters can withhold graphic content knowing it is still likely available to the audience. But TV news is fighting for viewers, too, and it serves little benefit for an organization to push its viewers to social media for its news.

The Abbotsford stabbing video was already circulating on social networks before news editors were even faced with the decision to air or not to air. The CBC came into possession of it via a former intern who first encountered it on social media.

For media outlets, graphic videos represent a sort of double-edged sword: they have an intrinsic value as a form of social media content in that they attract clicks, but social networks operate in ways that takes control away from the viewer. In December 2013, Facebook introduced an autoplay feature, where videos would automatically play as soon as they appeared to the viewer (though sound is disabled). For media outlets and advertisers, there is a positive here: advertisers bank on the instant attention an auto-playing video garners, and, in turn, media companies can charge higher ad rates for that format.

While autoplay can be a profitable function for news organizations, it brings up a number of ethical concerns about sensitive content. Since videos—especially videos uploaded directly to Facebook, rather than linked through Youtube—are prioritized in Facebook’s algorithm, graphic video can linger near the top of a user’s newsfeed for days. When Global uploaded a video of their broadcast, which included the stabbing video, to Facebook, it would have played on a user’s feed automatically, and thus subjected viewers to the video without warning or consent.

Autoplay functions have attracted criticism before in similar circumstances. In August 2015, two journalists were shot and killed during a live broadcast on WDBJ-TV, a Virginia cable station. The station provided its viewers with a warning. Before that, though, the video autoplayed on countless Facebook and Twitter feeds, prompting a visceral backlash against the social networks for their autoplay functionalities [1]:


Graphic videos are infrequently uploaded by journalists and more frequently by social media users directly to video hosting sites like YouTube or LiveLeak, a video platform popular among activists and citizen journalists for their somewhat more lax graphic content restrictions. They also make the rounds on forums where fans of such videos visit. Videos like that of the Abbotsford stabbing, for instance, were (and continue to be) circulated on death video forums such as the subreddit r/watchpeopledie or DeathAddict.com. The Abbotsford video, which was posted to Youtube and widely linked, was only brought down when Safer Schools Together (a bullying advocacy group) purchased the rights to the video and were able to have it removed by making a copyright claim. In this case, Safer Schools Together was still not able to fully control the video’s spread — only to keep it off the most popular networks. In most cases, copyright claims have limited value, as they simply can’t keep up with the pace of online sharing.

If the video of that Abbotsford stabbing was readily available on a digital, global scale, would a news organization’s decision to air it appreciably increase the potential harm? Or could not airing it potentially lose them audience members to competing networks that might opt to broadcast it? As social media grinds away at editors’ gatekeeping function, these are questions they’re forced to confront when considering whether to air graphic content.

[1] Valinsky, Jordan, “News crew shooting shows perils of auto-play videos on Twitter, Facebook,” Digiday. August 26, 2015.

Next: 6. Alternatives to the unedited video