Instagram’s new 15-second videos are a BFD for eyewitness news

By Steve Outing

Instagram’s new feature, 15-second videos that can be posted by 100-million-plus Instagram users, is a BIG DEAL FOR EYEWITNESS NEWS. We’ve seen many a technology advance that impacts journalism, but I think this addition by Instagram will have an almost-immediate, significant effect on news.

Of course, the phone app Vine appeared not long ago, with its unusual take on mobile video capture: The app allows you to take a 6-second video, which can be broken up into segments since the recording takes place only while your finger is on the screen. When played back, Vine videos loop and repeat, a la animated GIFs.

While Vine has possibilities for journalistic use (many news people have experimented with Vine, including some journalism students at CU-Boulder who I worked with during spring semester 2013), Instagram’s initial implementation is better for journalistic purposes. Fifteen seconds is a better length of time to capture a news event; and like Vine, with Instagram video you can splice multiple short segments together to record and share one 15-second Instagram video (or multiple 15-second clips).

Reporters and photojournalists: Update your Instagram phone app and be prepared to use it when the time is right during your news coverage!

Here’s the real game-changer: Instagram’s 100-million-plus users have documented and shared still photographs of all sorts of things, much frivolous and personal, but also including breaking news. If a major event such as a school shooting takes place, a journalist can use an online service like Geofeedia to pull in mobile social-media content from the scene — including Instagram photos from eyewitnesses and bystanders.

Ready to see this type of news incident in video? It's coming soon.
Ready to see this type of news incident in video? It’s coming soon.

Now, of course, we’ll be able to tap into Instagram videos from disaster scenes and other breaking-news events. … Is there a passenger getting out of control and violent on an airplane that’s taxiing for takeoff? Expect to see Instagram videos of the incident from passengers get shared on social media within minutes or even seconds of the onboard melee.

This is great for journalists (not to mention law enforcement), who can’t be on the scene for every piece of significant news. But eyewitnesses with smartphones always will be at the scene.

As a next step, Instagram could add live video streaming as an option. In the airplane scenario above, we might become live eyewitnesses ourselves — digital voyeurs viewing the chaos in real time. That’s game-changing.

Of course, live-streaming video apps have been around for a while, but none have caught on in a big way. When a mobile-photo app with the visibility and sheer number of users of Instagram adds video, it will get used.

Now, I don’t want to go all Pollyanna on you; there are plenty of down sides to increased use of smartphone video which Instagram’s move has set into motion. Less privacy, for one thing, as more strangers may be video recording you while you’re in public places. Clearly, that’s creepy for many people.

But here’s something else, which will affect some people more than others, depending on sensitivity or lack of it to viewing disturbing video. Remember the recent incident of a man getting pushed onto a New York City subway track and then getting killed by the oncoming train because he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough? The New York Post famously posted on its front page the photo shown here of the man seconds before he was killed. A freelance photographer ran trying to help the man or get the train operator’s attention, snapping photos and firing his camera flash.

Next time, don’t expect to get off so lightly. Fellow passengers unable to help might fire up Instagram and video the scene, from the oncoming train, to screaming victim and bystanders, to the train crushing the unfortunate victim. The gory eyewitness Instagram video may not get shown on local or national TV news programs, but you can count on it being easy to find and spread virally across the Internet. News organizations with different sensibilities, say Gawker, might run the gory Instagram video.

We just entered into a changed world (again). You can either thank Instagram, or curse it, I suppose. But the reality is that all of us will be exposed to more of “real life,” no longer protected from gory or distasteful images by paid news editors trying to protect us from seeing real-life blood and guts.

Personally, I think this is a good thing on balance. You may disagree, and if so please leave a comment below.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!