Tornados kill. Are streaming video viewers responsible for risks taken by live storm chasers?

Above: One Periscope user streamed from a shelter, many were streaming while watching TV reports and one faker was rebroadcasting disaster movie footage as tornados swept across Oklahoma Wednesday afternoon.

It’s a new facet on an old question. Some have always wondered how audience response might shape the behavior of those reporting the news.

But now anyone delivering live news video can see the exact number of viewers, read their comments and see other feedback in real time.

So, isn’t it a solid presumption to make that some tornados chasers might get a little closer to the storm — or stay out a little longer before taking cover — when they know there are more viewers online?

And how much risk would they take if there were no viewers?

These questions came to mind as I watched live streaming Pericope reports from a series of tornadoes reported Wednesday afternoon in Oklahoma. At least a dozen homes were destroyed and a dozen people were injured, according to reports from the New York Times and Reuters.

I watched about a dozen storm chasers Wednesday and I captured frame grabs of their reports, but I didn’t learn anything. So, I haven’t included them here.

Taking personal risks also creates the possibility of draining emergency response resources during a crisis. And the expense of rescue and medical care can also become a burden on the public.

The traditional counter-arguments still apply. Americans enjoy freedom of the press and some reporters are defending the public’s right to know what’s happening. Perhaps learning more about tornados could help us learn how to better protect people.

So, I am not suggesting what anybody should do, except that viewers should consider the impact of their participation.

Many of the commenters I saw in the live streams clearly had the best intentions, telling those out in the elements: “Hey be careful!” “Hide!” or “You should take cover.”

Watching people putting themselves at risk left me feeling dirty and I tried to trick one user into a shelter by commenting that it would be more interesting to see the inside, but he didn’t take the bait.

Other commenters reacted more reflexively, with “OMG!,” “Wow!,” “SCREWED” or “That’s crazy!”

And some resorted to gallows humor, asking “Who are the next of kin we should contact?” or promising “$20 if you run around naked in the tornado.”

I have to agree strongly with media write Staci D. Kramer, who tweeted:

But I think I may have watching the same stream that prompted journalism student Nate Geary to tweet that he was “pretty sure I just witnessed two kids get sucked into a tornado live on periscope.”

I know I saw the signal drop from a car in which two young men seemed much too close to some severe weather.

And I am almost certain that I was watching the same video that led Breaking News founder Cory Bergman to tweet:

I thought at first that the video might be legitimate, and seeing someone so close to a twister made me feel physically ill. But then I discovered a ridiculous user name on the related Twitter account, with very few followers and nothing but a few spam tweets previously in the stream.

So, I continued searching:

I found many users streaming related news and weather reports from TVs in their living rooms. And I found behind-the-scenes studio streams from TV stations, with reporters standing in front of green screens.

I found one stream reportedly coming from inside a shelter at Oklahoma University. It looked legit but I didn’t stop to verify.

More than a few other streams came from what I might call “outposts;” with people pointing their phones out of windows of their homes, offices or hotel rooms.

And it was a tornado aftermath report that prompted me to create this site a few weeks ago.

Finally, I also noticed that a couple of storm chasing streams were featured at the top of the “Global” directory within the Periscope app — but I don’t know if that list is human-curated or driven by viewer counts.

In either case, people were putting those streams in the spotlight — including this viewer, but I don’t think I would do it again.

What do you think?

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Jim MacMillan

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I am a solutions-oriented independent multimedia journalist, based in Philadelphia.
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Jim MacMillan

I am a solutions-oriented independent multimedia journalist, based in Philadelphia.

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