Extreme rubbernecking: live streaming crash scenes a bid for online popularity

People may think they're being citizen journalists when they stop to take photos or videos at collision scenes, but one digital media researcher says they may just want to appear to be more interesting.

More than just citizen journalism, people may be trying to appear more interesting, prof says

Police in Chatham are urging people not to take photos of crash scenes, like this one near Hamilton in June, and to think before they post photos and videos to social media. (Twitter)

As he stood on the highway between two separate crashes on the 401 near Chatham this summer, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Cst. Jay Denorer couldn't believe his eyes as he watched a truck driver get out of his vehicle and walk towards the wreckage.

"He's holding a cellphone at chest level. I'm yelling at him to not take any pictures and get back in the vehicle and he says to me, 'I'm not taking pictures, I'm live streaming on Facebook,'" Denorer told CBC News.

"I'm like, 'You know what, can you please just shut it down.'"

The crash scene the truck driver live streamed was on a Friday afternoon, going into the August long weekend.

Although Denorer didn't know it when he spoke to the truck driver, it turned out to be a fatal collision — a mother and son from Amherstburg died in the crash.

Denorer said police didn't have a chance to identify the deceased or notify family members before the trucker posted the video.

The experience prompted Denorer, the media relations and community safety officer for Chatham-Kent OPP, to issue a release urging the public to stop taking photos and videos at collision scenes.

"Think before you post," Denorer wrote. "How would you like to find out through social media that your loved one was involved in a motor vehicle collision?"

'What's the purpose?'

It's rubbernecking taken to a new level and it's something Denorer and his colleagues are seeing more of at crash scenes.

And it's something he just doesn't understand.

"As you're going by a collision scene, what's the purpose of taking a photo? Are you going to show your family and friends?" he said.

One explanation is that people posting these photos and videos to social media might — consciously or not — be trying to make themselves seem more interesting, said Aimée Morrison, an associate professor who teaches courses in digital media and literature at the University of Waterloo. 

"They're subconsciously producing content for their own social feeds," she said.

"If we live in an attention economy that's driven by likes or by shares on Facebook or on Twitter, if something unusual happens to you or near you and you make a record of it and you share that, that makes the content that you have to share a little bit more special and different which makes you special and different which might get you more likes or more comments or more reshares."

She likened it to when a journalist gets a scoop on a story.

"Except these people aren't journalists and they're not trying to serve the public interest in many cases," she said. "What they're doing is trying to draw attention to their own feeds."
Although bystanders are equipped with technology to film public incidents, University of Waterloo professor Aimée Morrison says there is a moral line that can be crossed. (Shutterstock)

Screens desensitize

Morrison says most people would first think of using their phones to call for help in an emergency, but there have been recent cases where people stand behind their smartphone screen without making any effort to help.

Recently teens in Florida filmed a man as he drowned. Rather than calling 911 to get help, they're heard on the two-minute video laughing and taunting the man, saying he was "going to die."

The man, 31-year-old Jamel Dunn, did die. The teens were not charged because Florida does not have a Good Samaritan law where a person is obligated to help someone in distress.

In August, a fire chief near Vancouver denounced bystanders who stood in the way, filming, because they delayed emergency responders from assisting a family whose car caught fire.

"Can you imagine getting out of your car and just standing, watching people trapped in their car...? You would never do that, it would be so incredibly rude," Morrison said.

"But somehow people think it's OK to get out of their cars, hold up their phone and video it without offering any help."

Putting up a smartphone in these situations can desensitize what is happening in front of you, she said.

'Pretty clear moral lines'

Morrison noted there is a difference between filming a crash scene versus documenting something that you think could be evidence.

She noted in the case of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota on July 6, 2016.

His girlfriend live streamed the interaction with police because, Morrison said, she was concerned the version of events she would provide would differ from that of police.

"There are some pretty clear moral lines ... Could you be doing something more constructive? So if someone's car is on fire and they're still trapped in the car and you are making a video instead of either helping or calling police, then I would say you've crossed a moral line," Morrison said.

"If you see someone having an interaction with police that you think is dangerous or perhaps unlawful and you stand 30 feet away and make a video of that, well, perhaps you're doing that for different reasons and that footage might have a different purpose."

Breaking law

There is one stretch of the 401 highway near Chatham currently under construction where collisions are particularly bad, and where Denorer regularly sees people shooting videos.

He said when it comes to people taking photos and videos at crash scenes, they could be breaking the law. If they are driving by with a cellphone in their hand, they can be charged with distracted driving.

He said it's now gotten to the point where police may start bringing extra cruisers to collision scenes to pursue the people taking cellphone video and images: there is a $490 fine and the drivers will lose three demerit points if the driver took them while at the wheel.

"There's no reason why you need to be on your phone as you're driving," Denorer said. 


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