A big thank you to the Shuttleworth Foundation

So what do you do when, after an incredibly busy and somewhat stressful month, you receive an email saying that you have been given $5,000 to “concentrate on a brilliant idea”? I might have done something like this.


I was nominated by the mighty Esra’a Al Shafei, the founder and executive director of Mideast Youth. She is a Shuttleworth Fellow and is doing incredible work right now, particularly in terms of  MidEast Tunes,  the largest platform for underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa.

I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I’ll spend the money but it will involve creating resources to help teach people how to verify facts, images and videos circulating on the social web.

Last year, I co-founded Eyewitness Media Hub. We’ve had a great first year. We published three new research projects, one on the use of eyewitness media by global online news sites, one on attitudes towards eyewitness media by UK audiences, and the third is on vicarious trauma, and it launches on Friday. We also published ethical guidelines for newsrooms reaching out to eyewitnesses caught up in breaking news events. Finally, in June we became a founding member of the First Draft Coalition, and helped launched FirstDraftNews, a website full of articles and resources for newsrooms and journalism schools. The focus is on social discovery, verification and the ethical use of eyewitness media.

But one thing we haven’t tackled is creating resources aimed at everyone. How can we improve digital literacy so as many people as possible know which checks to run before clicking the retweet or share button.

Almost every day rumours, doctored images or hoaxes circulate. Some of this false information is created deliberately, but often old content is re-shared by people trying to be helpful.

This the main problem I want to tackle. How can we teach the simple techniques that will help people ascertain whether something is true or not? And how can we create visual tools to signpost false content as it gets shared?

This very generous grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation will help me work on these problems, and I’m confident that over the next six months I will have come up with some solutions. If anyone has ideas or wants to help, please get in touch. I will be posting about the project here and on my Twitter account.

Thank you again to Esra’a for nominating me, and to the Shuttleworth Foundation for listening to her! I’m very proud to be able to say I’m Shuttleworth funded.

Shuttleworth Funded

This UGC research – what next then?

Blimey – that was a big undertaking. Last Friday, after 8 months of research, we launched the final report into our study on user-generated content (UGC) and how it is integrated into global news – on TV and online. You can read the full report here. You can also read an excellent round up of the research by Mathew Ingram at GigaOm here.

The report was launched as part of a day-long conference at the Tow Center of Digital Journalism. The title of the day was Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation. You can watch the whole day here, but just in case you don’t have 7 hours to spare and actually just want to watch our bit, I’ve embedded the video to start at the point when we hit the stage. (For info it’s at timestamp 5:35:23)

Last summer I started thinking about how much I wanted to get back into research and my time with Storyful was proving how much newsrooms were relying on UGC in their news output. But we had no concrete figures about how much was being used, or during which events it was being used most. So I wrote a proposal and sent it to Emily Bell at the Tow Center. Amazingly, she said – “yes, let’s do it” and with incredible support from the amazing Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown, we did do it.

We watched 1,164 hours of television news, analysed 2,254 webpages, and interviewed 64 people at 24 newsrooms in 38 countries. The final report is 37,000 words. We did all of this in 8 months, while also doing other projects.

And while it is of course a report about all things digital, I’m not going to lie, I was very proud to bring home a copy of the report that actually looks like a book, that I can put on an actual shelf.

Ultimately, the question has to be – what do we do next? One of the reasons I left academia in 2009 was a frustration that I didn’t feel connected enough to the industry. That I was writing articles that I knew weren’t being read by the people with whom I wanted to engage.

This report ends with 14 recommendations. But there’s no point this report sitting on people’s bookshelves, or in people’s Pockets, their ReadLaters, or their Delicious accounts which they no longer look at. We want this report to be a call to action.

In 2008, I finished a big report, with the help of colleagues at Cardiff University, into UGC at the BBC. For reference, that report had just one mention of one social network: Facebook. When I’d finished writing up the report, I remember talking to my Mum about how I feared no-one at the BBC would read it. In fact people did read it at the BBC and I was offered a 6 month secondment/attachment. It was that opportunity that meant I was at the BBC when that plane landed in the Hudson River and BBC News asked me to develop a training programme on social newsgathering and verification. Over 3000 journalists took that course. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d still been sitting in my office at Cardiff University.

I have the same concerns about this report. It’s wonderful to see people tweeting about it, and talking about it at events (something I was very happy to see on Monday at a YouTube event). But we have to move beyond talk, and actually do something to make these recommendations a reality. How can we develop an ‘Uploader Bill of Rights’ so that people know what they should expect when they are contacted by newsrooms? How can we start thinking about a 24 or 48 hour public license for news content so newsrooms aren’t ‘scrapping’ over content that has a place in history? How can we ensure that ethical newsrooms who do credit uploaders, are careful about how they word calls to action to prevent uploaders putting themselves in danger, are differentiated from agencies with no ethics, paying people to put themselves in harms way? How can we ensure newsrooms are putting guidelines in place to prevent social journalists from suffering from the vicarious trauma now documented as a risk from prolonged exposure to graphic UGC? How can newsrooms work more closely with social networks to improve the way that UGC is discovered, verified and integrated into content?

As I look into my UGC crystal ball, I believe we have about 18 months to sort this stuff out. If we don’t, something major will happen. Dodgy agencies will continue to pop up, realising there is a business in ‘licensing’ news content, with no regard for the ethics of paying people to put themselves in danger. There will be a class action lawsuit by an uploader who knows their rights, and understands that multiple newsrooms using their video without permission under the false premise of ‘fair use’, is wrong.  Someone will die, filming content for a news organisation who made it clear they would love to use more of his ‘great pictures’.

So while it’s nice to talk about the report, we have to do something. We have some ideas about what we need to do to make things happen, but if you can think of ways to make these recommendations turn into reality in today’s pressured newsrooms, please let us know.


Who fancies a chat about UGC?

Photo credit: Janis Krums http://twitpic.com/135xa

I’ve been a little bit obsessed with ‘User Generated Content’ and news for over 8 years. In 2005, I remember watching BBC Breakfast, and wondering who, while eating their toast and cereal, would turn on their computers, and actually email the programme with a question or a picture of a sunset. (Remember, back in 2005, most of us didn’t have phones that we could use to send a quick email. Doing so required turning on our desktops, and waiting for it to ‘fire up’). To find out the answer to my question, BBC Breakfast were kind enough to let me sit in their Gallery back in December of 2005. I remember sitting next to the journalist who was responsible for monitoring the inbox and the SMS portal. He was the type of person we’d now call the Social Media editor. Even then, BBC Breakfast was receiving about 900 emails per broadcast and many more text messages. This was before YouTube or Facebook had taken hold and Twitter was yet to be born.

My interest continued and between 2007 and 2008 I ran a year long research project into UGC at the BBC with some very smart people at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. Because I was young, ambitious, and slightly insane, there were six elements of the research (10 weeks of newsroom observations, a content analysis, an online survey, 12 focus groups, qualitative interviews with BBC managers and a nationally representative survey). From all of that, there was just one question that involved social media, and that was a question on the nationally representative survey that asked people how regularly they looked at online forums and message boards, including Facebook. The speed at which social media continues to transform newsgathering and audience interaction with news content still amazes me. But back in 2008, social media just wasn’t relevant enough to study any further.

Fast forward to now. I’m about to embark on another study of UGC. It’s called Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User Generated Content In TV News Output. It’s funded by the Tow Center at Columbia University and I’m working on the project with Sam Dubberley, who used to be News Editor at News Exchange, part of the European Broadcasting Union. As part of the research, we intend to interview over 60 journalists and managers from news organisations around the world. The research will provide information about how UGC is being integrated within newsrooms globally, so we can share examples of best practice and produce training and support materials for news organisations.

We’re interested in asking questions related to:

1) Workflow – how is UGC managed within the newsroom? Are there dedicated journalists or is responsibility shared across the newsroom?

2) Verification – does the newsroom have official verification standards before a piece of content is included in the output? Are staff required to undergo verification training?

3) Rights/Payment/Credit – are there guidelines associated with copyright? Does the newsroom pay for UGC? How is UGC credited on screen?

4) Ethics – are there ethical guidelines about using content from the profiles of people involved in tragic events? Would the newsroom ask the audience to go out and film during a breaking news event?

5) Staff Support – does the newsroom provide psychological support for staff viewing graphic content via social networks?

We’ll be in Marrakech next week at the News Xchange conference, and already have a number of interviews lined up. If you’re going to be there, or your boss is, please get in touch. We want to talk to as many people as possible, from as many newsrooms from as many countries as possible. We know there are parts of the world where there is very little integration of UGC in news broadcasts. This is mainly because of continued sceptism about its value rather than a lack of valuable content being shared in these regions. And we’re just as interested in researching the reasons why UGC isn’t being used, as we are investigating the newsrooms that have dedicated teams of journalists working with UGC every day.

We’re trying to share as much of the research as we can via blog posts and tweets. We’re using the hashtag #UGCTow if you’re interested in following along and contributing to the topic.

For those of you who know the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch, what do you reckon?

My latest collaborative journalism project

This post went up on the Storyful blog today but I want it to be shared as widely as possible.

I just tweeted about how I’d forgotten how difficult it is to make collaborative journalism projects work. It’s an emotional roller coaster. One minute you’ve sent out the tenth email of the day and received no replies, the next minute you speak to a student journalist on the phone who is so excited about what could be possible. It takes such hard work to sustain these projects. You can see why it’s easier to stay clear, but the rewards I’m hoping will be worth it.

Like the tubestrike project from September 2010, hopefully this will work in the end and I can write a blog post that will get as many hits as this one, explaining the lessons learned. People seem to love hearing about the difficult bits!


You may have seen an increasing number of tweets, blog posts and even perhaps received an email about our plan to aggregate content from students during the campaign season.

Up until now, it’s been a vague idea, but now we can unveil our plan for the first truly comprehensive, collaborative journalism portal for the US election, #ElectionEyes. It will start with the Republican convention starting on 27th August, and will run for the rest of the election.

The project will be truly representative. We want content from as many neighbourhoods as possible, not just the battleground states. Traditional coverage has a narrow focus, in terms of topics as well as geographic location. Of course everyone will be looking out for a candidate gaffe caught by a camera phone, but with #electioneyes, we’re just as interested in a video of the Saturday morning rallying call of one election agent in one small downtown office.

We’ve talked to journalism professors across the US and all have talked about their plans to work with their students to cover the election from their local perspectives. Students will be spending the next three months blogging, taking videos and photos, creating audio slideshows, curating with Storify, and live-tweeting the campaign as they see it.

But rather than having to encourage individuals to upload content to a specific site, we will be using a website that will automatically display content being shared on the hashtag #electioneyes. This means the project requires no extra work for anyone.  I repeat, this project requires no extra work for anyone! The technology will do the hard work for us.

This was happening in 2008 but the technology didn’t exist to connect everyone so easily. Huffington Post’s #offthebus was an incredible example of what can happen when citizen journalism is taken seriously, and some of the contributors to that project unearthed some of the standout moments of the campaign. In 2012, #offthebus is happening again and we’ll be working with its team to feature the best content on their site.

This project will provide a comprehensive and rich body of reporting and we know it will focus on the issues that matter to real Americans, not just the ones that the candidates want to talk about. We also know it will focus on policies not just the horse race.

Storyful journalists will be monitoring the #electioneyes site every minute of every day so we can feature the most interesting content on the Google Politics and Elections page, and theYouTube Politics page, as well as feeding it to our client news organisations.

From August 27 we’ll also be hosting weekly public Google Hangouts to discuss different techniques for capturing and sharing content, so anyone can learn the tricks of mobile reporting, building twitter lists to monitor conversations, the challenges of live-blogging etc.

For any journalism school that signs up,  you’ll get free access to the same Storyful US Politics stream that professional news clients receive, for the whole of the election campaign. We’ll also be creating training videos with tops tips and tricks for getting your classes ready to cover the election using mobile and digital technology. These will be available for free for journalism schools that sign up.

So spread the word. Let’s see what we can achieve.

If you want your take on the election featured on our site,  we’d love to add you to our contact database here.

Add #electioneyes to your tweets, and let’s see what’s possible.

If you would like to talk to us about the project, either about participating in it or advertising on the site, please email Claire WardleAine Kerr or Dawn Fallik.

My new role at Storyful

I’m very late actually writing this post as it’s now week 4 of my new job, but maybe I wanted more to write about than simply ‘I’ve got a new job’ – that’s what twitter is for.

So four weeks ago I started working with Storyful. I had been following the startup since the summer of 2010 when Mark Little started tweeting about his new venture. I met Mark in person when we invited him to the BBC Social Media Summit I helped organised in May 2011 and then on a couple of unrelated trips to Dublin I found myself in a pub with Mark and other Storyful staff finding out more about how they operated and what they were hoping to achieve. Lots it turned out.

This January on another unrelated trip to Dublin Mark offered me a job I couldn’t turn down, and earlier this month I took the role of Global Advocate/Director of Development and Integration (we’re still working on titles around here)! I’m going to be based in London, but with lots of travel, working with our clients around the world, and frequent visits to the mothership in Dublin.

That’s the most exciting bit. It wasn’t until I started that I realised how much I missed working as part of a team. Being an academic can actually be quite lonely, and when you throw in the competitive and (dare I say it) backstabbing elements, it can be quite a disheartening experience. And my last three years as a freelancer have also sometimes felt quite lonely. Being part of a team, either in person in an office full of banter, tea and those buckets of naughty goodness from Marks and Spencers, or virtually, on yammer where at any time day or night, someone from the team in Dublin, Oregon or Vietnam will be there saying hello, or sharing tips and leads. That is incredibly rewarding.

The other impressive part of watching Storyful in action is that this is a proper newsroom. Every piece of content is verified to within an inch of its life, every fact is cross-referenced and double-checked, and the news values associated with a story are considered instinctively. And the speed at which they work is mind-blowing. My first day in the office was Super Tuesday, and watching the streams unfold on the internal systems made my eyes water.

After training at least 2000 people on social media tools in the past three years, and comparing that with what I see amongst the Storyful journalists I realise that everyone can learn what the tools do, and how they can be used theoretically. Being able to use them in real-time, under pressure, as well as being able to follow the trails across different social networks and sources, and to combine that with traditional journalism practices is not something that can be taught. Your brain has to work a certain way, and it has nothing to do with age, gender or experience.

My sister used to run a restaurant in West Wales and I’d often find myself on potwash, helping out on busy shifts. I used to watch in awe at the height of dinner service, as my sister, under intense pressure and heat, would stand at the Pass, directing the chefs, to create and send out the most beautiful dishes. I would compare it to a conductor directing an orchestra.

That’s what it looks like when I see a big news day at  Storyful. A group of very talented people working together to create something very exciting. Come back to me in a few more months when maybe I’m more cynical, but for right now, I’m pretty damn pleased to be here.

Journalism ethics in a social media world

Earlier this month I spoke at a Media140 event about the ethical dilemmas faced by journalism in an age of social media. I thought I’d write up some of my thoughts here:

In my previous life I was an academic at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. One of my roles was as ‘Deputy Ethics Officer’ (yes my Mum was proud;)) and was involved in the development of ethical guidelines for the School in 2005. In the past decade Universities have been forced to institutionalise ethics for two reasons: to protect students who want to undertake research in dangerous situations (for example an MA student wanting to understand the life of sex workers in Thai brothels), or more importantly to protect vulnerable subjects (for example people with learning difficulties, children etc).

The ethical principles are clear and shared across academic disciplines. Researchers know to ask for consent from participants before asking questions, keep data confidential etc, but these shared principles weren’t so easy to get passed in our School of Journalism. As one of my colleagues stated: “I’m a journalist. My job is to expose the corrupt and if the only way I can do that is by going through their rubbish bin to find credit card receipts, that’s what I’m going to do. You can’t get me to sign up to these universal guidelines”.

That exchange exposed in a second, the ethical complexities inherent in journalism. And it is for that reason that the arrival of social media has not created fundamentally new ethical quandaries. Yes, at the boundaries, social media is forcing newsroom editors to make snap decisions about whether or not to publish a photo, whether or not to upload content, but fundamentally nothing is new. For the most part, the five main issues that are causing the most problems, are issues that have always been problematic – they have just been transplanted into digital scenarios instead. These five issues are: copyright; verification; protecting sources, gathering information using false pretenses; contempt of court. I will talk about these in separate blogs at a later point, but ultimately my argument is that these issues have always existed. What is more challenging now are the issues that exist at the boundary. Here are a few scenarios. What would you do in each?

1. Someone posts to a public facebook page that is campaigning to keep a local hospital open. You work at a local radio station and read the post out on air. The person complains saying they didn’t agree to their words being shared on a broadcast medium. Should you have not read out the statement, or perhaps read it out but not read out the name?

2. Someone calls up a radio station and gets angry in an over the top way about a topic everyone can relate to. Your producer puts the audio on a social network and it goes viral and he becomes a laughing stock around the world.Is it appropriate to put out audio on social networks when the person doesn’t know first?

3. There’s a large fire and a student journalist contacts the newsroom saying they are happy to cross police lines to get you some footage. You can’t get a camera crew down there for 40 minutes, what do you do?

4. Someone has been murdered. You can access information about them as they had their profile open to friends of friends and you happen to have gone to the same University. Do you publish their last status update or do you contact the family first?

(See my suggested ethical ‘answers’ below)

These first two scenarios have at their heart the way the audience perceives social networks. Journalists might argue that a facebook wall is a broadcast medium in the same way as a radio station, but users with locked down profile settings who are confused that posts on a facebook page are not private, might not. Similarly people who call up radio stations, understand what that means, but don’t understand how that same material could make its way around the world. Similarly, people post to facebook, believing they are writing for a particular audience, and not thinking about how information would be perceived by others. In my training, I often ask people to check to see what a journalist would find out about them if tomorrow, they either won the lottery or disappeared without a trace. What would the headline be?

As Deputy Ethics Officer I undertook some research into how online communities perceived ‘lurkers’ as increasingly researchers in the department were using online message boards as a form of audience research. Again and again, they would say that while they technically understood that their online community (a message board) was public, they couldn’t understand why academic researchers or journalists could just listen to their conversations without introducing themselves and explaining what they were interested in.

In a 2008 survey carried out by the Press Complaints Commission, 78% of respondents would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media. I would be interested to see if that number has changed now that people are more savvy. But the crucial element here is that savviness is often directly correlated with education and income. For much more completely brilliant writing on this area, you must read danah boyd’s work.

We are in a transitional period where people are working out what these new spaces mean to them. While spaces might be technically public, they don’t feel public to the tight knit communities using them. Ethical considerations are never black and white and ultimately come down to individual decisions about what is right and wrong. When working in an incredibly pressured environment with competitors using information you deep down know isn’t appropriate, it’s harder to do what’s ‘right’, but slowly we’re seeing newsrooms and the ‘audience’ becoming more sophisticated about these issues. Photographers are watermarking their pictures, people are checking their facebook settings and producers are contacting contributors before uploading potentially viral content to audioboo.

Ethical considerations are evolving  and while their are hitches, confusion, and some dubious incidents, for the most part I’d say that we’re moving in the right direction, without the need for any guidelines or directives. And that has to be a good thing.

Suggested ‘Answers’

  1. Read out but don’t read out the name
  2. Explain to contributors beforehand that content might be shared on the web.
  3. Say no, however tempting.
  4. No again, however tempting.

When the subject becomes the creator…

Disclaimer: I have been working with the BBC Radio 4 appeal for the past 9 months, but I wanted to share this as I think it’s beautiful and incredibly moving. Below I explain how it came about.

For me, it’s an example of why digital tools and social media can have such impact on voluntary organisations that work directly with people. It’s easy for organisations to go about their work, but then use social media to slickly ‘broadcast’ their news from an official perspective. But more and more are realising the ways in which the tools themselves offer the potential for ‘clients’ to show or describe in their own words, how an organisation has helped them.

The Connection at St Martin’s helps homeless people by providing specialist services to over 200 people in central London every day. They offer a day and night centre, outreach for rough sleepers, skills training and career advice, activity programmes and specialist support for complex needs.

It would have been very easy to create an audio slideshow produced using stock images of homelessness taken by a professional photographer, a sympathetic voice-over and a Coldplay track playing softly underneath. Instead these photos came from a photography project at The Connection, where clients were given disposable cameras. At first there were discussions about providing particular themes (e.g. take a photo at dawn, take a photo of your possessions), but it seemed most appropriate to keep instructions to a minimum.

In addition, rather than doing formal interviews with the clients about their experiences, they had their usual weekly workshops and instead, all conversations were recorded, to produce natural dialogue about the photographs and the motivations for taking them. The audio from this particular slideshow was taken during an interview between Jamie and Libby Purves for the official Christmas appeal broadcast but there are plans that some of the other audio from the workshops can be lifted out and shared more widely.

The Connection already has quite a track record of using art as a way of working with clients and they have exhibitions of clients’ work and a facebook page profiling some of the artwork. Many of the pieces are absolutely beautiful and it’s wonderful that flickr and facebook provide a way of showcasing them to a wider audience. (It’s well worth clicking on these links. Flickr features all of the photos taken as part of the photography project, and the facebook page features different types of artwork created by clients at The Connection).

So it’s perhaps not surprising they just won a Talk Talk’s Digital Heroes award,  a scheme to reward individuals who are using digital technology to benefit their local communities.

Last year a poem by Jamie featured in an audioslideshow. According to Sally Flatman, the Radio 4 Appeals producer, “I think last year was, in a way, a building block for this year. We had Jamie’s poem which was very powerful but the only way we had of illustrating it was by existing photographs. We felt very much this year that we wanted the slideshow to be more of a whole, not pictures bolted onto someone’s audio or audio bolted onto someone’s pictures.  We’re learning that these slideshows can be a very powerful way of someone telling their story. “

Technology today allows anyone to become a creator, and when they do, the results can be absolutely stunning. Please share this slideshow as widely as possible this Christmas.