Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: How to Livestream Mass Death

Yesterday, thousands of people watched bloodied bodies smolder on a faraway field, thanks to a Russian news outlet. Is this taking livestreaming too far?

Images: Screenshots from Life News' broadcast

Warning: This post contains graphic images.

Yesterday, many thousands of people watched bloodied bodies, children's among them, smolder in faraway wreckage through the halting purview of a Russian livestream. The ground was a blanket of charred ruin, and tongues of smoke lifted into the air from certain patches of the rubble. 

A man sorted through a pile of dirtied passports. He opened one to reveal the cherubic face of a 10-year-old Dutch boy. The image froze, a gray circle appeared in the middle of the screen, along with a Russian word we can assume meant something like 'buffering.'

Russia's Life News was among the first on the ground after word spread that another commercial flight from a Malaysian airliner had fallen from the sky. Hundreds were dead, Ukraine was already blaming Russia, and vice versa, and a thick black plume was trailing into the sky. In the beginning, the outlet was livestreaming, and the link was circulating on Twitter, and thousands were clicking. 

Horrifically graphic images of the the downed #MH17 flight coming from Life News live stream. Bodies among the debris.

— Tanner Kahler (@tannerkahler) July 17, 2014

Live stream of the scene of the wreckage person and someone was showing photos of passengers http://t.co/iHi1InXDDV via @worldwidenieuws

— Kety Shapazian (@KetyBrazil) July 17, 2014

And Life News, a private, heavily pro-Russia news outlet, delivered the carnage. All of it. There was no filter; the outlet's cameras zoomed in on the wreckage, the naked bodies, the billowing smoke, the tiny menacing fires, the severed limbs, the travel books. Someone had been headed to Bali for vacation.

We saw morbidly curious bystanders and disaster responders picking through the wreckage, hosing down the site. There were reports that people were looting the crash site, but if they were, they were being discreet about it on the feed.

Soon, Life News' journalists gathered the passports they'd found into a pile and began picking them up and leafing through them, on camera. Passports of people, of children, that had, hours ago, been reclining their seats in Ukraine's airspace. That might have been the moment when it all felt too much. 

That kid is dead now. The unblurred version that ran in the initial livestream shared her name and birthday and picture, published on the internet minutes after she was discovered. She was 10 years old. This was no longer journalism; it was voyeurism.

Eventually, the livestream ended, and the format reverted back to a more traditional hosted newsroom format. The host and her expert guests delivered commentary as the outlet recycled bits of the livestream footage, and began to censor the sensitive images upon repeat. The bodies were not initially blurred out. Like an exponentially grislier version of CNN with its own previous Malaysian plane coverage, Life News repeated the footage all day, over and over. 

It's still graphic stuff, so be forewarned; highlights of the broadcast were uploaded to YouTube:

The mode of viewership is common now, of course; livestream journalism is bordering on mainstream. We've watched the Ukrainian conflict itself unfold through an unfiltered feed. Meanwhile, violent LiveLeak videos of warfare in Syria and beyond are plentiful and easily enough accessible. But there is something exceptional and somewhat disturbing about the effort to document the downed plane and the mass death it caused, this livestream of the dead. 

Livestreams are increasingly popular because they offer the public a window into what it's like to be on the ground during a major event. The livestreamer is a mobile proxy for the viewer, who's stuck in an office or dorm room, watching from a laptop. VICE's Tim Pool popularized the medium alongside other journalists at Occupy Wall Street, where interest in the form spiked because people wanted to know what it felt like to be thrust amidst a chanting throng in New York, to stand up against Wall Street titans and NYPD officers. You're empathizing with the stream; it's an emotional conduit for the messy action of real life.

But Life News' livestream was a nonstop roll of corpses and calamity. There's no empathy for the human stand-in here; who among us would pick through a brand new aboveground tomb and stare at the dead, zooming in—for hours? I have witnessed tragedies unfolding in person, but I have not lingered as these cameras did. I tried to help, even if I failed, but I did not stare as a voyeur at dead human beings as they were discovered in realtime. 

There's already plenty of controversy around the distribution of images of death online. Buzzfeed, for instance, found itself at the center of controversy when it embedded a video clip of a live suicide that Fox News had accidentally aired on television. Yet there is undeniably an audience for such graphic imagery, and some feel that refusing to share it dumbs down a news organizations' portrayal of reality. A 2010 University of Arizona study found that young Americans especially thought that news shouldn't filter out scenes of death—and that during the Iraq war, they turned in multitudes to Al Jazeera, which was much less squeamish about showing the "raw images" than outlets like CNN and MSNBC.

This desire to see the pure, unfiltered truth—gore and all—no doubt, is spurring news organizations to push the envelope with their live coverage, and to share rolling live streams. 

"Younger audiences, especially the ‘YouTube' generation, seek graphic visual images in a far different way than audiences did before the World Wide Web," Shahira Fahmy, the author of the ASU study, said at the time. "This has serious implications for the news media. I think it's time for media organizations to amend their ethical codes to allow for more graphic visuals in an effort to provide a more comprehensive and realistic view of war and conflict to US audiences."

Major media organizations may or may not have amended said codes much, but other orgs—including VICE—have moved to fill the void. And this is a good thing, the vast majority of the time. Fewer filters means access to a fuller truth.

But even if some things, perhaps, should not be livestreamed, it's probably too late for such pointless proclamations, as 'should or shouldn't' is rendered moot by the march of ever-cheaper, versatile mobile technology. It had marched up to the tragic crash site in Eastern Ukraine, and was feeding every detail into our screens. Along with the livestream, there were YouTube videos, of course, uploaded by nearby citizens who saw the crash site smoke. 

We are building increasingly three-dimensional recreations of tragic events, and we are doing it with increasingly rapidity. We are capable of creating immersive replicas of these tragic environments to wander through; in this case a crashed plane on field now littered with hundreds of bodies. We have tools like Storify that help people curate, share, and accelerate their reconstruction of events; the future of learning about mass disaster is being bombarded by all of these responses, all at once. 

Some would argue that this is beneficial; that it may ratchet up our empathy for such events, and allow us to understand and experience them in a way not previously possible. Others argue that it is doing the opposite. The New York Times wrote this of a 2010 study that found youths' capacity for empathy was on a decline: "the authors speculate a millennial mixture of video games, social media, reality TV and hyper-competition have left young people self-involved, shallow and unfettered in their individualism and ambition." And a 2013 study concluded that exposure to violent media reduced the viewer's capacity for empathy. Those findings are, of course, in dispute. 

Regardless, we're probably going to have to start being a bit more careful with how we engage livestreams, and our immersive experience of death. In-detail portraits of the newly dead and sensitive personal information of the deceased were published with crystal clarity yesterday, in scenes many found too gut-wrenching to watch. The real-life gore that once lurked deep in online forums is now on the brink of becoming a major factor in online journalism, a click away from anyone with a Twitter account. There are a lot of questions—and there's lingering uncertainty about how well-equipped we humans are to wander through sites of mass death, day after day.