As the amount of UGC produced around news events has proliferated, newsrooms have had to discover, verify, and secure rights for using this content. They have also had to find ways to make it broadcastable by transcoding video files, while developing systems for distributing it across news desks.
There is no one established workflow in terms of the way UGC is treated across the news industry. Just considering the issue of discovery, there are four methods newsrooms use for finding and accessing user-generated content: a) locating people with footage at the scene of a breaking news event, b) encouraging people to share photos or videos directly with the newsroom, c) finding content on social networks themselves, or d) relying on agencies or third parties once the necessary rights permissions are in place.
In most cases, smaller, national newsrooms rely solely on the news agencies for international stories. On domestic stories they may, however, encourage their audiences to submit content, or turn to Twitter or Facebook to search for photos, videos, and eyewitnesses.
It is relatively rare for a newsroom to have a dedicated UGC desk, as the BBC has with its UGC Hub. Still, even in news organizations where responsibility for discovering and verifying UGC is shared across the newsroom, there is normally a team of people (or even just one person) seen as having more expertise in handling UGC. These journalists are much more likely to have Arabic language skills given the volume of content emerging from Syria and Egypt.
Due to the limited number of people who have the necessary skills to verify UGC, and the concerns many senior editors share about the difficulties of verifying this type of content, the final decision to use a piece of user-generated content often has to be “signed off on.” This means that the time of day often impacts UGC use. During overnight shifts and weekends, UGC is much less likely to be used.
The biggest challenge that larger newsroom face involves safely sharing content around a newsroom once it’s been discovered and verified. Even downloading video from YouTube and converting it into a format that can be broadcast provides a real headache for many newsrooms. One newsroom has even set up a camera to film a computer screen, which plays the YouTube videos they want to use. Once the footage is converted and uploaded into internal Media Asset Management (MAM) systems, information related to the completed verification checks and required crediting can be, and is often, lost. As a result, by the time output or gallery producers receive the footage, they often don’t know the pictures’ origins or that they are working with UGC at all.
How Newsrooms Discover UGC
The primary method of UGC discovery differs by newsroom. Key variables for this are newsroom size and geographic reach. National news organizations tend to rely almost entirely on agencies for UGC to complement their international stories. They have neither the audience reach to expect eyewitnesses to send them content directly, nor the internal resources or expertise to scour social networks for reliable and trustworthy content. These organizations do, however, tend to look actively for UGC to supplement their coverage during domestic news events, such as bad weather stories, riots, and elections. As one high-level news manager explained, “We get UGC mostly from news services. Stuff that comes in independently would be more domestic than international.”
1. Content is located at the scene of a breaking news event
A number of interviewees referenced the piece of footage that emerged around the murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in London in May of 2013. The footage, which features one of Rigby’s killers talking directly into the mobile phone of a passerby, explaining his actions, was considered a watershed moment for UGC. Purchased by ITN for an undisclosed fee, the video was used by news organizations across the world either via syndication, partnership distribution agreements, or fair use. Many of the UK broadcasters with whom we spoke discussed how this event triggered internal discussions about buying footage from the scene of breaking news events. In particular, newsrooms identified a need to send senior journalists with the authority to spend money, as well as ensure that producers had the appropriate contracts ready for people to sign at the scene. One senior broadcaster shared his thoughts about the future of newsgathering, arguing that the best pictures will always come from eyewitnesses on the ground who have captured footage on mobile phones. He wondered aloud whether a smarter use of resources would be to send producers out to purchase exclusive content, rather than sending their own cameras to film.
2. Newsrooms encourage people to send photos or videos directly
Large 24-hour news channels have audience-reach, which means they are often sent pictures and videos directly. The BBC, in particular, still has the luxury of a global audience, many of whom know the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. CNN has iReport, a citizen journalism project established in 2006, which has built a very active community of “iReporters” who respond to daily calls to action, some of them linked to softer features’ topics, but many connected to hard news events. In addition, Al Jazeera Arabic has its own very successful UGC portal called Sharek. According to research carried out by Juliette Harkin and colleagues, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Sharek portal was receiving “more than 200 videos per day and up to 1,000 videos on Fridays.”14 Its success led to the launch of the organization’s Mubasher channel. Mubasher, the Arabic word for live, features continuous live streams, many of which are filmed by citizen journalists on the ground. During our coding of Al Jazeera Arabic, a large number of live streams were used, some of which ran for minutes at a time. Our analysis also showed that Al Jazeera Arabic used an average of 50 pieces of UGC per day, considerably more than the 11 pieces averaged by the other channels. The success of the Sharek portal has clearly played a significant role in the amount of UGC used on a daily basis.
Newsrooms prefer to receive content directly, as it provides them with exclusive content and the terms and conditions outlined on their websites mean that contributors have already accepted that they are giving the newsroom certain rights to use the content across the organization and its partners. However, because audiences have become used to sharing the content they capture on their own social networks, many interviewees talked about the challenge of encouraging people to send them content directly. People who work on successful UGC initiatives such as iReport, and the more recent GuardianWitness project, talked passionately about the need to build relationships with the audience. They emphasized the need to think about content creators as a community, showing contributors how their content had been used and how it had improved the news organization’s storytelling. They were adamant that this was the key over sitting back, simply thinking that a general call to action after a news event would result in high-quality submissions.
3. Newsrooms find content shared on social networks
Many interviewees discussed how their newsrooms have shifted from dismissing the notion that social networks can be used as a newsgathering tool, to becoming increasingly reliant on them. As one digital editor explained:
Everyone has got Twitter, Tweetdeck, or Hootsuite open on their desks. Everyone has. Even those who used to be quite reluctant to engage with it, and thought it was all about Miley Cyrus, they are all now doing it. It’s good for us, because rather than being the people who have everything open and are expected to find [UGC], we’re the ones who say, “Be careful with that.”
Another editor talked about the way that social newsgathering has been integrated within the newsroom. “It’s totally embedded. Our people on the news desk are monitoring social media all the time for tip-offs, pictures, videos, sources.”
A small number of newsrooms admitted rarely using UGC within their output. One example shared by RUV, the national broadcaster in Iceland, highlighted the differences that can still exist between international and national organizations. In December of 2013, Iceland experienced its first-ever instance of a police officer shooting and killing a civilian. CNN, thanks to someone in its iReporter community, received UGC coverage of the immediate aftermath. RUV did not use any UGC in its reporting of this major domestic event. Searching for UGC is not currently part of RUV’s newsroom mindset and it does not have an equivalent to CNN’s community of iReporters.
Although our research was focused on how newsrooms find content after a news event occurs, our interviews and observations revealed that Twitter is a primary means by which reporters are alerted to breaking news. CNN is currently using DataMinr for a trial, and journalists certainly felt that the alerts were consistently quicker that the traditional news agency wires. Similarly, the BBC has a position on its central newsgathering hub called the “Live and Social” position. There, one person is charged with monitoring Tweetdeck, and is fully loaded with lists of verified sources to give the BBC a leg up on breaking stories. Other newsrooms rely on the @StoryfulPro Twitter account that pushes out verified breaking news alerts sourced from Twitter.
4. News agencies play a role
One of the main findings from this research is the role news agencies play in the workflow that surrounds UGC in all broadcast newsrooms.15 For all organizations we interviewed there is a heavy, if understated, reliance on the main television news agencies AP and Reuters. All the television-based organizations we interviewed were subscribers to one or both of these agencies. There are other smaller agencies competing in this space, such as AFP TV; the television arm of the French news agency Agence France Presse; and Ruptly, the agency arm of the Russian broadcaster RT.
Storyful,16 a social media news agency which only discovers and verifies UGC, has acquired a significant client base in a short period. Also important are content exchange platforms, such as the Eurovision News Exchange operated by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This platform primarily enables the members of the EBU—Europe’s public broadcasters—to exchange content between each other.17 It also allows Reuters TV and AP to distribute content, including UGC. The Eurovision News Exchange is also a client of Storyful on behalf of its members and distributes content discovered, verified, and cleared through them. Many of the public broadcasters interviewed acknowledged the role that the Eurovision News Exchange plays in distributing UGC for their use. Fifty percent of the news organizations coded in the quantitative part of the research were Eurovision News Exchange partners.
For almost every newsroom, the news agencies play a very significant role in terms of discovery, verification, and rights clearance. Surprisingly, the scale of their impact is not always recognized, with some smaller national newsrooms actually stating they “don’t use UGC,” without realizing that many of the pictures they accept from the agencies are actually user-generated content. (This is particularly troubling as UGC distributed by the agencies is very clearly labeled as such, perhaps illustrating just how few journalists read dopesheets properly!)
For other newsrooms, the role agencies play is fully appreciated. As one social media editor explained, “My personal take is that if something happens we would be one of lots of news organizations wading in, going, ‘Can we use your picture?’ whereas actually that is what Storyful does for us.”
As well as simply integrating content that the agencies distribute, some newsrooms that discover content themselves will actually send it to the agency. “We do get clients flagging stuff up to us, [saying], ‘Have you seen this?’… We want to be belt and braces certain of something before we use it, [which is why certain newsrooms will] give [UGC] to one of the agencies and see what they can do with it.”
These platforms have always been an important source of international news coverage. The news agencies are often the first into conflict zones or at breaking news events and the last to leave—and broadcasters have relied on this for years. Nothing has changed in this regard when it comes to UGC. The agencies’ clients or partners demand it, so much so that they have had to rebalance and learn how to source and verify UGC to the required standards. One foreign editor at a medium-sized channel clearly explained the benefit for the broadcasters, saying, “Arguably, that’s the best way of getting UGC. Somebody else has done the work for you, because that’s what we pay them for.”
We conducted interviews at both the AP and Reuters, and because of their impact on the use of UGC within newsrooms around the world, it’s important to examine exactly how these agencies work in terms of UGC. We requested an interview with AFP, but received no reply.
AP and Reuters have taken slightly different approaches in their UGC workflows. The AP has established a dedicated social media desk, with a social media editor and producer. Reuters TV has kept the role as part of the main news desk’s responsibilities. What was noticeable about the workflow at both agencies was the reliance on bureaus and staff on the ground. As Fergus Bell from the AP explained:
Through training we have got the whole staff onboard so everyone knows that they have to monitor social media. If it’s video then people know that they can send it to me and I can take on the verification or advise them on the verification. But text, video, and photojournalists at the AP have all been told that they need to be aware of things on their patch, that if there’s verification needed for something in their patch then they will be the ones having to do the verification. I’ve seen so much that I can usually spot something that’s not right a mile off, so we put it through as many eyes as possible. Any contentious UGC gets alerted to senior managers, to senior editorial management before it gets put out. So there’s lots of eyes to catch it, but also the responsibility is on the experts in the region.
Reuters relies similarly on its own network of bureaus, but does not have a dedicated verification desk at its London headquarters. The decision to use UGC rests with the editor of the day. As Soheil Afdjei, news editor for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, explained:
Our structure for UGC is developing as we use more of it. The way we’re set up in terms of the number of bureaus we have around the world gives us that foundation to search for UGC around an event at a bureau on a regional hub level, where the story has happened and people are closer to the story. They know the territory better, they speak the language, they can cross-reference with colleagues who work for us on the text side or the pictures side [of the house]. In terms of using it and publishing it we then go through the verification process. It’s verified at the bureau level, regional hub level, then it comes to us and the editor of the day. They look at it and we discuss the merits and the caveats for running it, or not running it.
That said, both agencies were clear that at no point do they think that UGC replaces their own work. As the head of output at one explained, “UGC is an extra tool in the box, and it supplements the work that we’re doing, but at no point does it ever replace it.”
Staffing Around UGC
The question of whether all journalists in a newsroom are responsible for monitoring breaking news on social networks and finding videos and pictures, or whether it should be given to a small unit or even single journalist, has not been resolved.
There was certainly a sense that all journalists should have an understanding of how to discover and verify content, but there was also a belief that having dedicated staff that work with UGC every day is preferable, because those employees are better able to develop and become specialized in the techniques required.
As one editor observed, “My feeling is I don’t think the guys who are at the sharp end [the duty editors] are ever going to be in a position to be properly across social media, and I think we do need a dedicated role doing that.”
CNN talked about the ways social newsgathering has been integrated across the newsroom, highlighting the role of its iReport staff as clearly very important.
[Social newsgathering] is totally embedded. Our people on the news desk are monitoring social media all the time for tip-offs, pictures, videos, sources. We also have the iReport, so every morning in our editorial [meeting] we have an iReport representative at the table and they may say, “Oh, we’re getting really fabulous iReports.” … They can be stills, video, blogs, so it’s totally integrated for us in two ways. We can call out to our iReporters because we’ve got thousands of them now. We also monitor social media for breaking news [using DataMinr].
The biggest dedicated UGC unit within the news industry is the BBC’s UGC Hub. The desk is staffed by around 20 journalists covering the whole day in shifts, with a peak staffing level of five journalists during the day working on regional, national, and international stories across all BBC output—television, radio, and online. This desk is based in the BBC’s main newsroom, and one of its team members sits on the central desk that coordinates all the BBC’s news output, while the remainder of the team sits at the edges of the main news area.
ARD and ZDF in Germany have content centers that work with UGC alongside other content intake tasks. At ZDF, the tasks associated with UGC were added to the responsibilities of a pre-existing team. ZDF’s editor-in-chief, Elmar Thevessen, explained how doing this changed the team’s importance in the newsroom and made them more visible. It put UGC discovery into a more central place:
They will either search the Internet for video material themselves, or they will get a demand from one of the different programs that we have that they should look for specific material. And they are now connected into our news desk, which is something we hadn’t done before. In the past, they were operating totally separately from everybody else, but now we basically put one of them right in the middle of the newsroom; we also built a little office there. They work in shifts from 5 a.m. in the morning until 1 a.m. the next day.
Other, smaller organizations with daily news bulletins have no dedicated desks, but have allocated the role of UGC or social media editor to a single staff member (in many instances, due to the Syria conflict, this person is an Arabic speaker, as at VRT of Belgium and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom).
Having one person in-house ensures that workflows surrounding UGC are taken more seriously within an organization. However, having only one specialized UGC staff member also causes problems when they are not on shift. The pan-European news channel euronews has a single dedicated UGC editor, who noted, “When I’m not working, usually the rule is not to use UGC. It’s the best way, but that means we can be a little bit limited.” This can also mean that when UGC is used outside of that window mistakes can happen, as other producers are unaware of the correct procedures. This was the explanation euronews offered for its limited crediting of the amateur content it put on air during the Glasgow helicopter crash. Notably, it was not only that the UGC editor was not working; general staffing was also lower. Peter Barabas, the channel’s editor-in-chief, explained, “Staffing is reduced by 40 percent on nights and weekends. We function at about 60 percent of what we do on weekdays.” A social media editor from another channel noted that when he was out of the office UGC that comes from agencies often doesn’t get credited. He explained that because his organization doesn’t “credit pictures that come from agencies, because we work a lot with agencies,” people thereby think the same rules apply to agency-generated UGC.
These single-editor organizations are clearly aware of these risks, but believe that having a dedicated UGC specialist ultimately provides more benefits. As the senior foreign journalist at VRT confirmed, “You have to remember that we are a small organization and in bigger organizations it’s probably a bit more organized. When you sometimes see them on the BBC talking to their Syria desk, that’s impressive. For us it was already a big thing that we have a producer who looks [at content from] the Arab world.” It was clear from our interviews that the benefit of having at least one staff member responsible for UGC means it provides a model for UGC workflows among other producers in the newsroom.
Organizations without staff dedicated to UGC-discovery typically point to their size and/or budget. Interestingly, however, they recognize that this will need to be rectified in the near future. As one editor admitted, “It’s something that is playing an increasingly important role in what we do. It is something that its time will come. We have a digital desk that generates digital content and it would seem to be a natural extension to their duties. Not that they’ll be thrilled to hear that.”
Certainly, where there is no dedicated UGC or social media desk, the online teams tend to be tasked to handle user-generated content. As one digital editor said, “Let’s say a building collapses or a fire happens. The TV people will come over to the online team saying, ‘Can you see if there’s any footage out there? Or any photos we can use?’ ” But as another digital editor conceded, “It used to be that [when a story broke] the online team would pop up like meerkats saying, Look there’s a photo! Now everyone in the newsroom [knows how to find that photo].”
There are four ways that UGC finds its way into news output. For some organizations, the only way it arrives is as part of a news agency feed. It has been verified, cleared, and is in a format that can be dropped straight into a package. Other news organizations scour social networks for UGC during breaking news events. But that requires a great deal more work in terms of verification and rights clearance, and with YouTube content that is to be broadcast on air, there are the additional issues of downloading and converting the video to a suitable format.
When newsrooms are using their own newsgathering techniques to source and verify UGC, be it via social networks or by people directly sharing material with them, there are staffing implications. In smaller newsrooms, one person might do the job; in others there are dedicated desks. Certainly, staff that work with UGC every day believe a dedicated desk would make a significant difference to the newsroom.
It was acknowledged that the basic skills required to work with UGC have developed across newsrooms, but there is a recognition that people who do this every day are able to hone their skills and expertise in very important ways. At the BBC, which has its dedicated UGC Hub, Chris Hamilton, the social media editor, explained that while many people in the newsrooms know how to spot fake Twitter accounts, that skill isn’t universal. He explained, ‘[The Hub] is still a go to, certainly for anything that is truly amateur, and especially on Syria.” He also discussed how skills are being disseminated across different desks. “There are pockets of expertise [across the newsroom], partly because people work on the Hub and then they go off and work elsewhere.”
Our interviewees demonstrated that newsrooms globally are using more UGC, and even those who currently use very little acknowledged this is going to change. As this occurs, the way that UGC is managed, and by whom, is going to be an increasingly important question for senior editors.14J. Harkin, et al., “Deciphering User Generated Content in Transitional Societies: A Syria Coverage Case Study,” Internews Center for Innovation and Learning, 2012 15This is discussed is detail by Chris Paterson in his chapter, “Global Television News Services,” in Media in Global Context, ed. A. Sreberney-Mohammadi et al. (London: Arnold, 2003), 145–160. 16Storyful was acquired by News Corp in December of 2013. See “NewsCorp Acquires Social News Agency Storyful,” NewsCorp Press Release, 20 Dec. 2013 17EBU members, http://www3.ebu.ch/members, accessed 7 May 2014.