Tag: journalism

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?

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.