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Within hours Sunday, a video uploaded to Facebook spread like wildfire.
It showed the random, heinous killing of a Cleveland man as he walked home after eating Easter dinner with his family.
About a minute long, the shaky footage depicted a man, identified as 37-year-old Steve Stephens, exit his vehicle, approach 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., a complete stranger, point a gun to Godwin's head and pull the trigger. In a separate video post, Stephens placed blame for his cowardly actions on family members and a former fiancee. He claimed Godwin was not his first victim, nor would he be his last: "I'm going to try to kill as many of these people as I can," Stephen says from the driver's seat of his vehicle, pointing the camera on himself. Facebook removed the videos after about three hours.
As law enforcement began a multi-state manhunt for Stephens, journalists and media ethicists reignited the debate about the roles and responsibilities of social media behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat that employ technologies allowing users to live-stream, broadcast or upload videos and photographs that potentially can be exposed to millions of people around the world in a matter of minutes.
The horrifying event also served as a reminder for traditional media outlets about balancing the need to disseminate information to the public with any harm that information might cause. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, used the tragedy to point journalists to a section of its Code of Ethics about minimizing harm, which states, in part, that "Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness." It calls for showing "compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage" and advises against "pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
In today's world, such guidelines are important not only for media members but for all of us.
If you came across video or screenshots of a situation like Godwin's killing Sunday on social media, would you hit the "share" button? Would you consider the pain and agony it might cause others, including family members and friends of the victim, who unwittingly could receive the information?
Would you take time to alert law enforcement? Would you be careful to share on social media only information that could be helpful to police in their search for Stephens, like a physical description and photos of the vehicle he was driving? Would you treat reports about Stephens and his possible whereabouts with a degree of skepticism, so as not to harm others unintentionally?
Like the proverbial double-edge sword, the instantaneous nature of social media cuts two ways. It has allowed law enforcement to get information out to the public in a moment's notice during life-or-death situations, like Amber alerts. It also has allowed for the proliferation of misinformation or information that does not serve the interests of the public, which has proven counterproductive for law enforcement in many cases.
As users of social media, it's important to remember there are consequences to our actions online. In other words, think before you share.