Critical Thinking: Should Media Companies Continue to Use Autoplay Video, Despite the Possibility of Seeing Graphic Images?

By: Adreana Young

Should Media Companies Continue to Use Autoplay Video

“After two Virginia journalists were shot and killed on live television in August, many social media visitors unwittingly saw the deaths occur on autoplay video. Should media companies continue to use autoplay? Why or why not?”

Kasia Pilat, 28, graduate student, New York University
Pilat studies the intersections of journalism, new media and digital innovation for her master’s program. Previously, she was an editor for the Prague Post, the only English-language newspaper in the Czech Republic.

Being in a newsroom when journalists are the targets of violence is an unforgettable experience. When Virginia journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were tragically shot to death on live television in August, I happened to be at the Daily Dot’s New York office that day.

In some ways I felt lucky: Being among my fellow journalists offered me a sense of solidarity and a way to try to collectively process the senseless

Critical Thinking: Should Media Companies Continue to Use Autoplay Video, Despite the Possibility of Seeing Graphic Images?
Kasia Pilat, graduate student, New York University

murders. But my coworkers’ reactions were deeply unsettling—several had watched the footage of the killings—some not by choice, but by autoplay.

Facebook began testing its new autoplay feature in September 2013. That December, in a blog post, the company attested to a more than 10 percent increase in likes, shares, and comments on videos with autoplay. “It’s a better experience for people and it’s leading to increased engagement,” the company wrote. In June of this year, Twitter followed suit, referring to it as “taking a stance on viewability.”

The intention is well-meaning enough, as Facebook and Twitter hope to find ways for publishers’ content to be seen by as many eyeballs as possible. When that content happens to be of a graphic, disturbing, or exceedingly violent nature, however, the autoplay feature bestows upon those publishers a much higher level of accountability and power, one that they must learn to wield wisely. As Jordan Pearson of Motherboard writes, “Autoplay is not for the world of tragedy.”

Autoplay itself is not the problem. In a heavily media-saturated world where content vies for users’ precious time and attention, it’s a strategic move that can help publishers better reach their targets. But as Facebook advised in a blog post earlier this year, publishers “should be conscious that people will discover your video in News Feed next to a photo from a friend or a status update from a relative.” Amidst that kind of content, overt and graphic violence has no place.


Kathleen R. Merrill, 49, managing editor, The Issaquah (Wash.) Press

Merrill is managing editor of The Issaquah Press, Sammamish Review, SnoValley Star and Newcastle News in Washington State. She has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years.

Kathleen R. Merrill
Kathleen R. Merrill, managing editor, The Issaquah (Wash.) Press

Autoplay video is a great way to engage people more directly than third-party hosts such as YouTube.

During extensive tests, people were two-and-a-half times more likely to prefer autoplay videos over other viewing methods, they were better able to recall videos from autoplay and seven times more people finished viewing promoted videos, according to a blog post by Twitter senior product manager David Regan.

The responsibility for people seeing graphic and disturbing images lies with the people in possession of such materials.

Most media organizations have policies governing how and when they publish graphic images in their publications and on their websites. But it seems many have not carried that thinking over to social media. The race to be first can often result in bad judgment calls.

While media organizations in the past have had sometimes long and often multiple meetings about what they should show to readers, that drive to get it online as fast as possible either shortens such conversations, or they don’t happen at all.

Another thing to consider: People watching the news or reading a newspaper (in print or online) know the possibility of seeing disturbing images exists. But people catching up with friends and relatives, checking out photos from birthdays, weddings and reunions, don’t expect to see someone shot to death.

Family members and other loved ones don’t need to see such horrible deaths, and they don’t need strangers looking at them either.

If people really must see shootings, beheadings and other graphic violence, they can and will seek it out for themselves.

Yes, a picture (and video) is worth a thousand words, but journalists should sometimes just stick to descriptions of crimes like this one.

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Published: November 19, 2015

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