This research project was designed to answer two key research questions:
1) How is UGC used by broadcast news organizations, on air as well as online?
2) Does the integration of UGC into output cause any particular issues for news organizations? What are those issues and how do they handle them?
The data revealed that, of the 38 newsrooms included as part of this research, only two had never used UGC in their output. For 24-hour news channels, UGC is integrated into output almost on a daily basis. On average, the channels used 11 pieces of UGC per day. Al Jazeera Arabic was an outlier, using 50 pieces per day.
For national bulletins, the reliance on UGC is lower. When it is used, it has mostly been sourced by a news agency. Overall, UGC is used when other pictures aren’t available; whether that’s from a conflict zone where journalists can’t enter, or eyewitness footage from a breaking news event.
While it is useful to have this benchmark in terms of how much UGC is being used within the industry, the amount of UGC being broadcast on air and integrated online was not necessarily surprising. What did surprise us was the amount of UGC that was not labeled or credited. UGC was treated like any other footage.
Crediting involves naming the uploader. We use the term labeling to describe the different ways news organizations acknowledge that someone unconnected to the newsroom created the content. Only 26 percent of UGC broadcast on air was labeled. Online this figure reached 70 percent.
Only 16 percent of the UGC broadcast during our three-week sample was given an onscreen credit by the news organizations. In comparison, 37 percent of content online was given a credit by the broadcaster (simply embedding content was not included as credit added by the broadcaster). We acknowledge that the process of embedding does mean that the information about the uploader is made visible.
Our data certainly showed more similarities than differences across television and Web output, with troubling practices across both platforms. The best use of UGC was online, mostly because the Web provides opportunities for integrating UGC into news output like live blogs and topic pages.
The interviews we carried out bought the quantitative data alive, lending a vital explanatory layer to the findings. Journalists who work with UGC every day were not surprised by our results, and were able to describe in detail the processes through which UGC has to travel—providing necessary context to topline figures. It was noticeable that the very low levels of crediting and labeling did shock everyone with whom we spoke.
On many of the other topics, however, there wasn’t consensus. We were regularly surprised by the way different journalists talked about the issues raised by the integration of UGC and how their newsrooms handled these issues.
Overwhelmingly, managers talked about UGC in very different ways than those who work with it every day. Managers tended to be disconnected from the reality of the everyday work that is involved with discovering, verifying, and clearing the rights for UGC. Therefore, in many newsrooms the staff who work daily with UGC does not receive specific support; whether that’s training in advanced verification techniques, the development of mandatory crediting guidelines, updates to editorial policies about labeling UGC based on the agenda of the uploader, or the necessary improvements to Media Asset Management systems to protect the metadata connected to UGC.
When we started our research, we interviewed 10 senior managers from national newsrooms at a large broadcast news conference, and the answers we heard suggested that UGC is always fully verified, that permission is always sought, and crediting is systematically given on screen.39 If this research had not included a quantitative element, or included interviews with journalists who work with UGC every day, the conclusions we could have drawn would have been entirely different. The lack of knowledge around the specifics of UGC is not surprising. Senior managers in newsrooms today have never had to face the reality of trying to lead a bulletin with a picture uploaded to Twitter. The specific skills required to work with UGC have been developed by certain journalists over the past five years through necessity. The complexity of these skills are not yet necessarily recognized at a managerial level.40
Our overall conclusion from this research is that news managers need to understand the full implications of integrating UGC, and do so quickly. We say this particularly with regard to the impact on their staff, their audiences, and the people who are creating the content in the first place.
It was not surprising that so many interviews used the term “Wild West” to describe the current landscape. A lack of precedent, deliberately vague terms and conditions used by social networks, and ignorance on the part of uploaders cause real confusion. But the speed at which this landscape is shifting means that all journalists, editors, and managers have to understand this world, and keep up with the pace of change. The most important issues include the following:
1. Unless crediting practices improve, an uploader will take a news organization to court for using content, either without permission, or because he or she was not attributed. The results of such a case would have wide-reaching implications for the news industry.
2. The current way that UGC is being discovered and used will change very soon. More and more high-value UGC is being licensed very quickly after breaking news events. If newsrooms want to use this content (which are often the only pictures available from a breaking news event), they will have to pay.
3. The processes needed to verify digital content require specific knowledge and skills. While traditional journalism techniques are crucial to the process of verification, they have to be combined with an understanding of specific tools and practices. It’s not necessary for all staff members to master forensic verification techniques, but basic verification knowledge should be required. Certain staff in all newsrooms should be able to independently identify an uploader and run a full analysis on his or her digital history, as well as confirm the date and the location of a piece of video, a photo, a Twitter or Facebook status, or a blog post. Certainly the output editors who make the final decision about using a piece of UGC need to understand that verification is a process—not a true/false distinction—and they need to know which questions to ask of the producers who have undertaken the process.
4. News organizations’ reliance on agencies to discover and verify UGC is very surprising. News managers therefore need to understand the differences between the practices at different agencies around UGC in order to ask appropriate questions about the provenance of a piece of UGC, and the verification checks that have been undertaken. Journalists also need to know how to recognize that a piece distributed by agencies is UGC through dopesheets so they know they are indeed working with UGC and can add additional labels to ensure maximum transparency for the audience.
5. An academic study by Professor Anthony Feinstein and colleagues (to be published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine very soon)41 compares self-reported psychological measures of journalists who work on domestic desks with journalists who work on UGC desks and frequently in conflict zones. The main feature to emerge from this study was that frequency of exposure to UGC, independently and consistently, predicted multiple indices of psychopathology, be they related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or alcohol consumption. This research will require news organizations to take their responsibility toward staff working with UGC on a daily basis seriously, and to institute working practices to minimize risk.
6. News organizations’ clarity in their public calls to action is a crucial element of the training needed for staff working with UGC. As more and more UGC is captured at news events, without clear advice to people on the ground about how to stay safe, and clear language that emphasizes that newsrooms will not use content that has been captured by people putting themselves in danger or committing an illegal act, it is very likely that tragedy involving someone attempting to capture footage “for” a news organization is on the horizon.
7. For some journalists, their roles will change. They are no longer the sole bearers of truth, as more space opens to allow people to tell their own stories directly. News organizations will have to decide how to manage this change. As one interviewee argued:
I think [journalists] find it very, very hard to let go. They don’t understand what their job is if they allow people to tell their story. But of course their job is fundamental, their analysis is fundamental, it’s fundamental to have journalists take all these people’s stories and make some sense of them. But I think journalists should be ready to shift the power a bit and make this type of journalism mainstream. UGC is still thought of as separate somehow. It’s kind of, “Well, we’ll add a little bit, because it shows that we care,” rather than it being absolutely fundamental to the news organization.
There is a critical need for more audience research on this topic. Almost nothing is known about how audiences consider the verification of UGC, how they feel about onscreen credits or, indeed, how they value the use of UGC in reports. In addition, very little research has been undertaken with those people who are caught up in breaking news events and post content to social networks, only to be bombarded by requests from journalists regarding usage. A number of our interviewees asked whether audience research about UGC existed, and went on to admit that it didn’t matter what recommendations this report suggested, nothing would change unless evidence showed that audiences cared.
We would also like to expand this research by studying whether similar patterns appear within newspaper organizations. Large newspaper sites are investing heavily in online video, and the role UGC plays in this context is important to understand in greater detail.42
We end this report with some suggestions and recommendations. These are designed to be conversation starters—hopefully a catalyst for some industry-wide meetings where journalists, representatives from social networks, lawyers, and educators can come together to discuss the reality of the situation, and work toward taking steps to improve current practices.
Throughout this process we have frequently reminded ourselves that it’s very easy for outsiders to write a report full of suggestions that are ultimately unworkable within the everyday context of a pressured breaking news environment. As part of the interview process we talked to journalists about practical solutions and asked them what they would find useful. Most said they simply wanted to learn more about how other news organizations handled UGC. This request and other suggestions are reflected in the recommendations. It is important to note that the Online News Association is supporting a group of journalists who have convened around the issue of social newsgathering. Led by Fergus Bell and Eric Carvin of the AP, the group is facilitating industry-wide discussion about many of the issues raised within this report.43
While more audience research is certainly needed, and will feed into these discussions, it is important that these conversations start sooner rather than later. Look what has happened in five years. Imagine how a report 10 years beyond the Hudson plane-landing might read.39It is worth noting that all but one of our interviewees was from a news organization not included in our quantitative analysis, and the answers given by Take Kusaba of NHK mirrored the use of UGC we encountered during our research.
40Research carried out by City University in the United Kingdom involved interviewing journalists about the type of technological support they would like to help them gather news using social networks. Discovery and verification technology was rated highly. See S. Schifferes, et al., “Identifying and Verifying News Through Social Media: Developing a User-centred Tool for Professional Journalists,” Digital Journalism, 2014.
41A. Feinstein, et al., 2014.
42This article explains the main aspects of the transition to digital, focusing on online video. P. Grabowicz, “The Transition to Digital Journalism,” Berkeley School of Journalism, 30 Mar. 2014
43An introduction to the main concerns of the group are detailed in this article: “Social Newsgathering: Charting an Ethical Course,” Online News Association, 6 Mar. 2014,