There are three main responsibilities newsrooms consider in relation to the use of user-generated content. Their responsibility to: uploaders, the audience, and their staff. We discuss them below separately, as they each involve different issues and concerns.
1. Responsibility Toward Uploaders
Health and Safety
Overall, among the journalists with whom we spoke, there was a real awareness of the health and safety implications related to uploaders putting themselves in harm’s way. Many journalists talked about the need to phrase calls to action carefully, so it didn’t appear they were encouraging people to put themselves in danger. They also talked about the need to be careful that the request didn’t look like their news organization was commissioning people to film for it.
Fran Unsworth, deputy director of news at the BBC, shared the organization’s experience during the Buncefield blaze of 2005, when a huge fire broke out at a fuel depot just outside London. Local teenagers got very close to the fire to film and, having been told by BBC producers on the ground that their pictures were “too wobbly,” leapt up and announced they would go and get better ones. They were told not to do so, as they were putting themselves in danger. This forced the BBC to rethink its processes around UGC, and it rolled out a specific training course regarding working with user-generated content and uploaders.
Caroline Bannock, who works on the GuardianWitness project, explained how her organization has changed the phrasing of its calls to action, discarding “send us your pictures” in favor of “share your pictures with us.”
I’m actually quite careful in a protest, so if someone is sending in photographs of someone doing something that they could be picked up for by security services, I won’t publish that. These people aren’t journalists; they’re sending us snapshots and they’re sending us stories. They don’t have that sort of journalistic sensibility. So we’re particularly careful.
Similarly, the AP talked about the specific dangers of geo-location technology. Fergus Bell explained, “We didn’t use some Bambuser live streams because I could work out on Google Maps where they were and we were not going to put that out live. Because if I know where they are, if I can pinpoint the roof that they’re on, other people can too.” Despite some examples of good practice, there was also the sense that good pictures were good pictures, and while news entities wouldn’t actively encourage people to put themselves in danger, if good pictures came in, most would use them.
And while a large section of this report talks about the importance of seeking permission, there was certainly an understanding by most that, when working with uploaders from certain countries, not seeking permission is the right thing to do. One BBC journalist working on a photo gallery from Iran told us, “As someone from the BBC it really raises a person’s profile if they’ve posted the image, by me saying, ‘Hello, can I use it? I’m from the BBC.’ So in that instance the Persian service advised that it’s better to just use it.”
Some people have given a great deal of thought to the blurring line between freelancers and citizen journalists. Increasingly news organizations are stating they won’t use freelancers in Syria because of a concern about inexperienced journalists taking serious risks without being insured. A few believed the same issues were emerging with amateurs as well.
One foreign editor talked passionately about the potential impact of these new licensing agencies on citizen journalists:
There are agencies popping up [and] encouraging people to film and send them material. [Those people] then edit it and send it out and say, “Here are some images of an incident that took place yesterday in Tahrir Square,” or whatever. Now, I’m nervous and wary of them because you’re saying to people, if you go and film in dangerous places, we’ll give you some money, and if we sell it on, we’ll give you some of the benefit. Now that seems to me no different from commissioning someone to go to a nasty place when you’re not prepared to go yourself. So you have a duty of care over the people who are shooting that, so I don’t use any of those.
There was certainly a wariness around providing technology to people on the ground, particularly in areas where it would be impossible to gain access. The case of the 18-year-old boy who died in Syria, who had been taking photographs on a camera supplied by Reuters, was mentioned as a warning to all news organizations about the responsibilities of the industry to protect and support citizen and accidental journalists.35
Facebook was mentioned as the platform that causes the most editorial discussions around whether to use content, particularly after death. Some journalists talked about the agencies that have emerged, which scour Facebook for photos after someone has died, that they copy and then sell onto newsrooms desperate for images. Reuters has a blanket policy of not using pictures from Facebook. As an employee explained, “Our pictures colleagues don’t touch Facebook at all. It’s not about copyright; it’s because it’s something personal.”
This explanation from a journalist at another newsroom shows that some organizations will use photos sourced from Facebook, but with caution:
When someone has died we don’t have the copyright so we’re taking an educated risk, and we would usually just use one or two images that portray that person in, if not a good light, a light to which you would expect the family to be happy. So no pictures of them from their Facebook page throwing up on a drunken night out, no. Just a picture of them looking nice, yes. We wouldn’t start building galleries based on their Facebook page and things like that at all; so one or two images.
There were some examples of guidelines which specifically make mention of the need to consider people’s intent when they published content on a social network. A couple of interviewees made the point that as more journalists use social media themselves, they can understand these ethical challenges with more nuance. A few years ago a journalist might have fought to use content that had been posted to Facebook, arguing that it is public. Now people are more aware of the complexities of privacy settings and might have more sympathy with the uploader.
And finally, journalists discussed the ways that uploaders are sometimes not ready for what happens after they agree for their content to be used. As one editor at Storyful explained, “One thing we’re taking seriously is advising people that their content is going to be seen all over the world. So we ask if there is anything about it, like if they’re swearing or the way in which they react to what they’re seeing, that they’re not happy about. We advise them to think about these things before we distribute their content.”
This type of comment wasn’t necessarily common, but again, those journalists who work with uploaders on a regular basis have seen many examples of the impact taking a picture or video can have when it is picked up by the news industry. Journalists who speak to uploaders regularly talked about building a relationship with them and subsequently having a heightened sense of responsibility toward them.
Ethics of Public Newsgathering
During breaking news events, blog posts often emerge about insensitive journalists using social media to chase people caught up in the action. In our interviews, a number of journalists talked about the difficulties of undertaking public newsgathering via social media when the people who have shot the footage are often very traumatized by what they’ve seen. Some journalists who work regularly with UGC talked about the specific skills required in these situations. As one former journalist argued:
My personal view when you’re talking to people who have been in a traumatic situation and you’re asking for their photos, the first question must be, “Are you okay and are you safe? And don’t put yourself in danger.” I’ve seen too many examples of journalists who do just disregard that. They seem to forget that these people are traumatized, or potentially traumatized, or in an extremely dangerous situation.
Some people shared experiences of talking with uploaders directly after an event. One journalist who was working the night of the Glasgow helicopter crash described some of the eyewitnesses he spoke to as “befuddled,” but as he explained, “You’d expect that as they’d just seen a helicopter crash into the roof of the pub they were in.” Another journalist described talking to a man who had witnessed a train crash. She said, “I realized then that when people see awful things they don’t necessarily act in a way that is rational.”
There is certainly a distinction between those seeking content and users who find themselves unexpectedly in a breaking news event. A journalist who works daily with UGC talked about the difficulties of building a relationship with someone via a 140-character tweet. “We don’t actually have a policy specifically around [social newsgathering] except to be as polite as possible. You see people just hammering [uploaders]. ‘Call me. Call me. Here’s my number.’ What we try to do is be softer about it, but it’s still the same. You’re still reaching out to them.”
We therefore asked journalists whether they were given any guidance or training about public newsgathering, and the specifics of how to reach out to seek permission from someone in shock. The BBC’s UGC Hub has regular support sessions for staff and even training on how to talk to someone who is traumatized; staff welcomed the chance to develop this skill.
For most people we interviewed, there was a sense that the ethical issues that surround the use of UGC are no different than other types of ethical decisions. Many interviewees argued that journalists simply needed to use appropriate judgment when it came to using UGC. As a senior producer at the AP explained, “Through training we’ve tried to get people to adapt their instincts to social, so if you were going to knock on the door of a loved one, how would you act? If you’re going to tweet a loved one, how would you act? It should be the same way.”
Too often conversations around user-generated content are all about the content, and the user is not considered. This is certainly the case because so few journalists actually work directly with uploaders. They work with the content once it has been discovered, verified, and cleared by someone else in their newsroom, or by an agency. Throughout our interviews, those who worked regularly with uploaders had very different ideas and views about appropriate practice. For example, someone from an agency argued, “I think a big ethical issue is—what are the rights of the owner of the content, not just the rights of the content itself? What are their rights to privacy? What are their rights to smart advice upfront? What are their rights to amend or adjust or even edit the video before it’s distributed?”
It was rare that these types of moral rights were raised in our interviews. Issues around health and safety have permeated through newsrooms, but these other aspects have not yet been considered in great detail.
2. Responsibility to the Audience
Secondly, we discussed at length the responsibility news organizations have to protect the audience from violence and trauma. There was a sense that decisions about showing graphic footage are the same now as they’ve always been, but some people we interviewed even believed that social media is pushing boundaries of what it is acceptable to show on television screens.
Editors from Reuters discussed how there are “different clusters of broadcasters who have different viewpoints on what they can and cannot run or what their audience wants to see,” with some countries being very conservative and others happily broadcasting pictures that would be shocking to a British audience accustomed to regulation by Ofcom.36
In many countries television news is governed by regulatory bodies, which have clear guidelines about the types of pictures that can be shown. However, the same regulations don’t exist for online news sites, although many newsrooms have very detailed conversations about what is or is not appropriate to show on the Web. There seems to be evidence that some newsrooms are pushing their own boundaries, acknowledging that sites like YouTube allow audiences to access images that previously would only have been seen by journalists working on picture desks.
The most commonly cited example was the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August of 2013. Many newsrooms believed they had a right to show some of that footage, but acknowledged the need to make it difficult to find. So Channel 4 News, for example, has designed clickable online barriers to reduce the likelihood of children stumbling across graphic images. As its Web editor explained, “That was a sea change [for us] because previously the lawyers at ITN and senior editorial people would just say, ‘No way, you can’t do that, someone will complain.’ Things have shifted because of
Deborah Rayner from CNN agreed:
Pictures will be going viral and everybody will be seeing them. The audience expects to look to CNN and see them because they look to you for context when there’s this type of footage. That’s increasingly what people look to the main broadcasters and publishers for; it’s the context. So sometimes [a picture] will be held up for quite some time while senior editorial staff argues about whether it can be used, then how it’s used. So the availability of unexpurgated material on social media does cause us ethical problems.
There is a need for more audience research on this topic of broadcasting graphic images in a context when they are often already available online. When British news bulletins broadcast the footage filmed by a passerby after the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the BBC, ITV, and the UK communications regulatory body, Ofcom, received roughly 800 complaints.37 However, as one of our interviewees discussed, it is unlikely that a traditional news camera would have been able to capture this type
So, how would the audience feel about not having seen that footage? For all the complaints we had, what is their view about [the news industry getting that footage]? Is that something they do want in their living rooms and we should be providing? Or is it something they could live without?
Need for a Standardized Set of Guidelines?
To be absolutely frank, what I don’t think is useful is a kind of common industry standard, which I know Storyful has been talking about, because we all have different standards. I mean, for a brief part of my career I was consulting and it didn’t take me long to realize that news standards and ethics are completely different country by country. I just don’t think trying to put one set of values or one set of filters on this stuff is appropriate because story by story it will change.
However, other people argued very forcibly that a standardized approach would be useful. As one journalist said:
I think we need to build an ethics code. It’s like the Wild West out there and I don’t think we’ve addressed it properly. So everyone’s doing their little bit in different ways and I think actually what would be really good would be all organizations coming together and really thinking of a sensible way of treating UGC… I think some organizations use UGC in a very different way from others. Some people would take a photo from a Facebook page without asking for it and other organizations wouldn’t. So therefore it’s very good for the public to know what ought to be the standard as opposed to, “Oh, they did that and I don’t know if that’s right or not.”
3. Responsibility to Staff
In terms of protecting staff, there were real differences in the comments made between people who work with this content every day and those who don’t. Those who do social newsgathering regularly were very vocal about the specific trauma that can come as a result of working with eyewitness content day in and day out. As one journalist admitted, “I now purposefully avoid the most traumatic, dramatic content because I have been so affected by it. I know it’s my job, [but] it’s a difficult line to cross. I feel like it’s my responsibility… But at the same time I have to protect myself from it.” The interviewee went on to describe the impact UGC can have on a journalist:
I was really upset all the time and I just felt helpless basically. I didn’t really sleep that well and I was anxious at work. Each morning, getting up and thinking, “My God, I know what the day has ahead for me—blood, children, death, whatever it is.” I just didn’t want to do it. It was a kind of constant anxiety.
Some described the way wearing headphones heightened their reactions to disturbing content, and the tension caused by opening video files on YouTube with no sense of what they would find. One experienced journalist was quite adamant that watching content via social networks was different than watching raw footage from the field:
What they haven’t been looking at is video with headphones on of mothers crying as they’re burying small children. And if you’re listening to that all day, I’ve found it’s not necessarily the graphic stuff that gets you, it’s being in the world where you’re hearing everyone’s distress. And hearing that for an extended period of time is the bit that can get to you. So I disagree with the point that we’ve all been looking at this for a long time. No one has been immersed in quite the same way as journalists working with social media today.
For many, it was the scale of the violent videos that have been coming out of Syria for the past three years that has caused people problems, whether that was difficulty sleeping, recurring images popping into their minds, lack of concentration, or more serious emotional responses and depression. Others agreed with the journalist quoted above, saying they could cope with graphic images but struggled to “hear” constant audio of people in physical and emotional pain. Others said that Syrian content was not a problem, but had found that a news event like the Aurora movie theater shootings in Colorado in 2012 triggered a response because it mirrored their own life experiences.
Those who don’t work with UGC often struggled to see how viewing it is different than viewing any type of rushes from the field. “I’ve been watching graphic footage since 1988. I don’t think there’s any difference,” said one senior editor. It must be noted that even people who felt that viewing UGC online was not any different from previous journalism jobs still work in newsrooms where there is counseling support for anyone who needs it. “As a senior manager it’s something you have got to take seriously. You’ve got a duty of care to your staff.” There were a range of responses on the issue, with some broadcasters having active policies about rotating staff on UGC desks, and actively reminding staff about counseling. Others didn’t have specific policies but agreed that if anyone demonstrated signs of vicarious trauma, they would be recommended to a counselor.
The subject of vicarious trauma in relation to viewing UGC is starting to become one of psychological study. In a forthcoming article, soon to be published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Professor Anthony Feinstein and his two colleagues examined the potential impact of viewing UGC in a newsroom. One hundred and sixteen English-speaking journalists, who work frequently with UGC, provided the researchers with self-reported measures that they were able to share anonymously. The article’s authors discovered that “frequency of exposure to UGC independently and consistently predicted multiple indices of psychopathology, be they related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or alcohol consumption.” The research also demonstrated that frequency, rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with user-generated content.38
The BBC, because of its number of journalists working with UGC every day on the Hub, takes vicarious trauma very seriously. As its manager, Chris Hamilton, explained:
It’s not that massive elaborate procedures need to be put in place. We just need to keep reminding the team when there have been big traumatic stories, that it’s okay to feel affected. It’s okay to say, “Can I work on something else today?” It’s about getting the people running the desk day to day to try to bear in mind, has someone been working on that story for multiple days? That’s one of the risk stories. It’s okay to be working on a traumatic story for one day, but on the second day that’s where the risk factor starts to rise. It’s just getting people to be aware of the little steps they need to take.
Other newsrooms shared best practices with us. At the AP, for example, staff is told that they can find support materials on the Intranet, as well as book an appointment with a counselor; they don’t have to feel they will be judged if they ask for help. At ARD in Germany, there are regular lunchtime sessions where specific techniques for minimizing harm are shared, so all staff benefit, not just those who have asked for support. Other newsrooms have a policy of rotating people off certain stories, even if they ask to continue working on them.
As well as these discussions about the impact of viewing distressing images, others talked about the impact of regularly talking with people who are traumatized. Those working on UGC desks are, by the very nature of their jobs, often dealing with people who have just witnessed something newsworthy—violent protest, a natural disaster, an explosion, or terrorist incident. Talking to people who have just seen such events causes its own trauma. To counter this, some newsrooms have created support networks for journalists working in this space to share experiences and best practices.
There is very little specific training regarding UGC. There might be social media training that teaches people to find content or, more commonly, how to use social media to promote it, but minimal specific training is dedicated to verification or copyright law. There are exceptions. The AP hosts a one-hour training course on verification processes. (This is mandatory for new starters and many other staff members have been through the training. The systems are also included in the AP Stylebook.) ABC Australia has something similar, which is mandatory for anyone working in roles where they regularly use content sourced from the social Web, but is available for people who want to do it. The organization also regularly circulates guidance notes to all staff, and there is a verification wiki on the Intranet with examples of best practice. The BBC is currently re-evaluating training needs in this area, with an acknowledgement that there are specific needs around social newsgathering, verification, and rights that might need to be included in a new training course. ARD offers regular workshops for staff with external experts to ensure their journalists are kept up to date with verification techniques.
But these examples were the exception. The norm is on-the-job training. It was, however, noticeable that in most organizations where we interviewed staff, there was a shared desire for additional training around verification.
One of the main issues we encountered was people in senior management positions for whom social media was not a prominent tool when they last worked on news desks. They didn’t know the specific skills necessary for journalists working with UGC, whether how to effectively search social platforms for content, verify that content, effectively seek permissions publicly from people caught up in breaking news situations, or ensure rights have been cleared effectively for distribution to partners or via
There are obvious barriers to this type of training, cost being a major one. Many newsrooms talked about a lack of money for offering training to staff. Another issue is the pace at which the social media landscape is shifting. As one journalist mentioned, “I’m not sure how useful set training pieces would be for us because everything is changing so quickly. I mean a lot of the stuff that we’re training people on is really focused on practical steps: ‘Do this and do this and do this.’ Those steps change so often that we kind of need to come up with a way that if there are resources, they need to be almost live.”
The phenomenon of such large amounts of user-generated content being shared on social networks means that newsrooms face a number of new types of responsibilities. These can include consideration for the health and safety of people who are not trained journalists but are sometimes putting their lives in danger to capture pictures, or consideration for the welfare of their own journalists who are watching this content for long periods of time.
As one former journalist wrote, everyone now has access to these images, and we don’t know what the consequences might be:
I know from sitting on a night shift, taking in pictures from plane crashes and bombs and things, I cannot forget what I saw; horrible things and the sounds of cameramen being sick and awful, awful sights that are seared in my memory. And I remember my son saying he’d looked at something on Twitter and said, “Mum, I can’t bleach my brain. I can’t get that out of my head now. It’s just too horrible. And he’s not young. But for young people who could come across this stuff, the emotional blunting of trauma is not to be underestimated. And then it just becomes normal, seeing horrific beheadings being shared on Facebook and thinking that’s normal. So I worry that the psychological trauma is underestimated, and who knows what kind of an insidious effect it’s going to have long-term on people.
There is certainly a great deal of discussion taking place within newsrooms around these issues, and there are initiatives such as the Social Newsgathering group within the Online News Association considering these topics. Academic research is demonstrating empirically what people have suspected for a while in terms of vicarious trauma. Awareness is being raised, which can only be a good thing.
Deborah Rayner of CNN raised one particularly interesting point, however, along a similar vein: the impact of trauma on the overall news agenda. She argued, “I think actually the bigger worry is that when you see more horror and gore… people are desensitized. You start to lack empathy, and as a journalist or editor you don’t support a story just because [you] don’t understand the real human impact of it, because [you’ve] just seen it so often.”
When you see news desks and audiences struggling with the complexity of the Syrian conflict, it makes you wonder whether the fatigue people are experiencing is actually caused by a form of desensitization.35This event was discussed by The New York Times in its Lens Blog; Reuters issued a reply a few days later. See http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/questions-about-news-photographers-in-syria-arise-after-freelancers-death/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 and http://petapixel.com/2014/03/16/reuters-responds-accusations-leveled-agency-new-york-times/
36Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, www.ofcom.org.uk/
37J. Halliday, “Woolwich Attack Video: TV Broadcast Prompts 800 Complaints,” Guardian, 23 May 2013
38A. Feinstein, B. Audet, and E. Waknine, “Witnessing Images of Extreme Violence: A Psychological Study of Journalists in the Newsroom,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, forthcoming 2014.