In the late 1950s, iconic newsman Edward R. Murrow recognized a paradox developing as the advent of television was transforming news reporting from the purely word-driven medium of radio into a much more powerful visual medium available in homes across America.
Murrow understood that news journalism would never be the same. He also recognized the responsibility that accompanies that kind of power.
In 1958, during a Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation dinner where he was the keynote speaker, Murrow spoke of the new television medium and the potential effects it could have on journalism and our society as a whole.
Known as his now famous “Lights in a Box Speech,” Murrrow explained how the new medium had the potential to teach, educate and inspire — but that it would require us to ensure it would be used towards those ends.
“Otherwise,” he said, “it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
This past Sunday, like millions of others, I heard about the murder of 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., who was randomly gunned down during a live stream on Facebook by Steve Stephens.
I chose not to watch the footage, but millions of others did, sharing it and tagging people despite pleas from Godwin’s family members not to do so.
This horrific use of social media came less than a month after a live Facebook streaming of a 15-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by a gang of six individuals in Chicago.
More than 40 people watched the assault live.
No one reported it or called police.
It wasn’t until the following day, when the girl’s mother reported her missing, that authorities discovered the video and eventually the girl’s whereabouts.
In the months leading up to the Presidential election, and in the months that have followed, I’ve watched social media platforms such as Facebook and others succumbing to the worst — rather than the best — we have to offer as a society.
It’s human nature to be drawn to things that disturb us. It’s the reason we gawk at the scene of accidents; why there are more NCIS spin-offs than any other genre on TV; and why Greek mythology is full of cautionary tales that end in tragedy. We find a certain comfort in recognizing when the mistakes of others have lead to their misfortune — and how we can avoid making those same mistakes.
But things are different in this era of social media communalism. It’s no small irony that, while we have become increasingly engaged in sharing our thoughts and experiences with more people than ever before, we have simultaneously come to accept that we are sharing those very things with people we will likely never meet.
Through that acceptance we are slowly laying the groundwork for the kind of social disconnect that we have begun to see with live streaming of disturbing events — and, perhaps even more disturbing, having them shared hundreds of thousands of times by others.
In a way, social media is promoting a culture of digital-aged peeping Toms, encouraging us to gawk through an endless array of partially open windows into the lives of others — many of whom we don’t truly know.
We can leave comments and engage in the conversations of strangers without consequence or accountability.
It’s an era of communication unlike any other, and the ultimate repercussions on our culture remain to be seen.
In the same way that Murrow expressed the need for us to have a willingness to use the medium of television to teach, educate and inspire, we need to ask ourselves what direction we will take with the evolution of social media.
Will we succumb to the worst of our nature or the best of it?
Will our smartphones and other digital devices be utilized to improve the way we communicate and broaden our understanding of each other and the world?
Or will they prove to be little more than microchips and lights in an even smaller box?
Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation and editor-in-chief at Siuslaw News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org