It is just over five years since US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in New York City. In the immediate aftermath, an incredible photograph emerged of passengers crowding onto the wing, awaiting rescue. It originated from the Twitter account of Janis Krums, who had tweeted it out to his 60 or so followers. At that point, only about 10 journalists worldwide knew how to find that picture, how to verify it, whether they needed to seek permission to use it, and whether they had the right to put the picture on air or online. In the five years since 2009, newsgathering around breaking news events has been revolutionized by the pictures and videos captured by eyewitnesses uploaded to social networks. The news industry has been running to catch up with people’s behavior around news events ever since.

The speed at which newsgathering has changed is astonishing. One journalist, who works on a UGC desk, admitted hearing people once say, “Why would we want to use this? Look at the quality of mobile footage; who would be interested in it? Now when a major story happens, everyone is beating at the UGC door. We’re the first port of call.”

While citizen journalists, or nonprofessionals with an interest in documenting news events, have taken some of these pictures and videos, indeed many have simply been shot by “accidental journalists”—people with a camera or smartphone on hand who happened to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time.

Rarely do these people recognize the value of their footage. Instead of contacting news organizations directly, they want to share what they have seen with friends and family via the social Web. As Anthony De Rosa (ex-social media editor for Reuters and now editor-in-chief for Circa) writes, “The first thought of the [uploader] is usually not: ‘I need to share this with a major TV news network,’ because they don’t care about traditional television news networks or more likely they’ve never heard of them. They have, however, heard of the Internet and that’s where they decide to share it with the world.”1 Amateur content-capturers have their own audiences to think about now.

Still, the news media is able to find UGC, and they do so in droves. Although this revolution has been acknowledged, no hard numbers exist about the amount of UGC being used by broadcasters. Furthermore, while journalists at conferences talk about these processes publicly, there haven’t been any—even off-the-record—conversations we’ve been privy to about the reality of handling UGC in a breaking news context.

The other area we were compelled to explore involved journalists’ perception of UGC. Previous academic studies have concluded that journalists simply consider UGC as another source. These studies demonstrate that, for the most part, journalists do not view the integration of UGC as a participatory, collaborative activity. Instead, they set the agenda and use content supplied by their audiences when they feel it is relevant.

Our research was therefore designed around two core 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?

To answer these questions, we sampled eight 24-hour news channels. We recorded 1,164 hours of television output, and captured 2,554 Web pages over a three-week period at the end of 2013. We then systematically analyzed the amount of UGC integrated into output on-air and online, and examined when and how UGC was used. We combined this quantitative analysis with 64 semi-structured interviews with journalists, editors, and managers at 38 news organizations (rolling news channels as well as national news outlets) located in 24 different countries.

Overall, the majority of the 40 newsrooms included in this study, located all across the world, use UGC in their output. For bigger newsrooms, especially rolling news channels, UGC features almost daily. Crucially, UGC is used when other images are not available, either from a newsroom’s own staff or the news agencies with whom they contract. However, there is a very small, but increasing number of newsrooms that see the benefit of investing in UGC to tell different or better stories—and this is starting to have an impact.

There is a very significant reliance on news agencies to discover, verify, and clear the rights for UGC—especially for foreign stories. The number of newsrooms that have dedicated staff for these processes is still relatively small.

Most interesting, perhaps, is how disconnected most news managers are to the specific processes associated with the integration of UGC. Those who work with UGC on a daily basis discuss its integration in a significantly different way than do their managers.

The journalists we spoke to about the integration of UGC raised six main areas of concern:

1) WORKFLOW: Should newsrooms have staff dedicated to
the processing of UGC, or should the task be shared across
the newsroom?

2) VERIFICATION: Verifying UGC is considered a most pressing challenge, particularly in the pressured context of breaking news.

3) RIGHTS CLEARANCE: The legal issues associated with copyright law concern everyone. Broadcasters that extract UGC from social networks in order to use it on air worry about breaking terms and conditions, whereas online journalists worry about embedding content without seeking permission from its creator (which is actually permissible according to the terms and conditions of the social networks).

4) CREDITING: Debates exist about whether on-air crediting is necessary, with the added complication that some news
agencies that supply UGC do not provide any information about
the uploader.

5) LABELING: Labeling UGC is also a concern. While accidental journalists, or eyewitnesses with camera phones, create some of the UGC used by broadcasters, people with a specific agenda film a great deal more. That could be an activist group in Syria or an aid worker in the Central African Republic. Newsrooms know that for reasons of transparency it is important to label UGC, but they are not sure how to do this appropriately and consistently.

6) RESPONSIBILITIES: In the specific context of UGC, the ethical responsibilities newsrooms must uphold for the uploaders, the audience, and their own staff are numerous.

These six areas of concern form the backbone of the way this report is organized. The strength of each of these as standalone topics encouraged us to create six digestible mini-reports.

One major tension runs throughout the research, however. That is the debate about the role of the journalist as gatekeeper. A handful of interviewees talked about UGC as a crucial way of strengthening the relationship of newsrooms with their audiences, but were also very honest about how technology was threatening the established role of journalists. As one interviewee admitted, “The crowd will many times think of something better than you do. And I think that’s something we refuse to believe because it shakes the foundations of everything we [do] as gatekeepers.”

The view that journalists should remain the bearers of truth permeated our interviews: “We should be gathering as much as we can ourselves. Our job is to be the eyewitnesses for people who can’t be there, to assimilate and disseminate facts, and to separate the truth from the untruth.”

As another interviewee argued, “Why are we journalists? Why did we become journalists? To make other people do the storytelling? We have to be very judicious in the way we use this stuff and not let it take over
the story.”

It is important to note that a handful of the UGC that featured during the three-week period was actually the inspiration for certain stories, which otherwise would not have been told. The ability of UGC to highlight illegal practices, or to illustrate stories that could not appear without pictures, was rarely discussed in our interviews.

For the most part, the audience is thought about as a potential source for breaking news pictures once a newsroom has been alerted to a story and has decided to run with it. The audience is not often considered a partner in producing compelling content. There were a few noticeable exceptions among our interviewees, who acknowledged that technology allows people to tell their own stories. These journalists argued that this should not be considered a threat; that journalists are professional storytellers, and their role will always be to provide the necessary layer of verification, context, and a narrative framework. This tension will continue to impact discussions about UGC, and it is unsurprising that it runs throughout this research.

Definition of User-Generated Content

The phrase “user-generated content” is a catchall that can mean different things to different people, even those working in the same newsroom. For the purposes of this study, we define UGC as photographs and videos captured by people who are not professional journalists and who are unrelated to news organizations. It does not include comments (either posted underneath a news article or posted to social networks) integrated into coverage.

What We Didn’t Find

Before we launch into our main research discoveries, we wanted to highlight what we found in relation to some of the assumptions commonly shared about the integration of UGC: that it is only used because it is a cheap way to source pictures and that news is being dumbed down by viral videos of talented pets and amusing babies.

Neither of these assumptions is true. Managers shared with us the cost of resourcing the integration of UGC into their output, in terms of discovery, verification, and clearing rights. Not one newsroom considered UGC a cheap alternative.

In terms of viral video, over the three weeks of our sample period, there was only one video that could be described as “viral” and it only appeared online. Not only were viral videos almost nonexistent, but there was also a very low percentage of weather content (commonly thought of as a news magnet) used by the broadcasters we studied. So the assumption that UGC is all about weather and pets appears not to be true. Broadcasters might receive the most content around these subjects, but they’re not using it very much.

How to Read the Report

The long-form platform Medium advises you about how many minutes each article on its site will take to read. If you’re going to sit down and read all six mini-reports here, it will certainly require quite a lot of minutes. However, we hope that you will dip in and out of different sections, and share those that you think are most relevant.