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Vincent 2011 and Beyond/Flickr

Vincent 2011 and Beyond/Flickr

The rise of user-generated content

By Amy Wallace

[dropcap]On[/dropcap] Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 France was dealt a devastating blow. The news shook the rest of the world. Co-ordinated terror attacks occurred in seven separate locations throughout Paris, leaving at least 130 dead and hundreds wounded. What followed was a flurry of social media activity from those bearing witness to the massacre, and the aftermath of this.

With the proliferation of social media, user-generated content (UGC) is becoming increasingly common. In the face of breaking-news events, photographs, tweets and videos from ordinary people are expanding news coverage. News stories in 2015 have largely unraveled on social media, from Charlie Hebdo to the shooting of two Virginia journalists to the recent Paris attacks and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

“User-generated content is any photos, or videos or text that is created by somebody who is not related to a professional organization,” says Claire Wardle, co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub and research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Wardle prefers to use the term eyewitness media, as it creates a connection between the creator and the content that they have captured.

“By using the phrase eyewitness media, the aim is to put emphasis on the fact that someone was an eyewitness, that they actually viewed it,” says Wardle.

David Blackwell, digital content director at the Calgary Herald, says his newsroom makes great use of UGC in presenting the news. “With the old model, it was ‘here’s the news be happy with it,’ ” he says. “Now it’s ‘here’s the news, what are your thoughts, but more importantly, can you inform our coverage of it?’ ”

The Calgary Herald invites people to share their experiences on Facebook, Twitter and the Herald’s website. “Basically we mine a lot of reactions we get for follow-up stories or to discover aspects of stories that were not immediately occurring to us,” he says.

“Cellphone videos for me would be the biggest thing that we deal with pretty much on an everyday basis,” says Andrew Russell, national online reporter at Global News. Russell cites some police violence videos, such as the shooting of Walter Scott, as well as Sammy Yatim. “That cellphone video that caught officer James Forcillo firing the eight or nine shots, is going to change that narrative,” he says.

Even though UGC is an abundant source, it carries a lot of concerns. There is some confusion as to how to properly handle such content, and many newsrooms have trouble navigating this evolving territory. This is the focus of a 2014 study from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV and Online News Output was conducted by Claire Wardle, along with fellow media researchers Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown. This study, the first phase of their research, looks at how much user-generated content is being used by traditional broadcast outlets. The authors collected and analyzed television output and web pages published by eight news channels, including the BBC and CNN International.

One of their findings is that UGC producers were scarcely credited – only 16 per cent of user-generated content was given an onscreen credit. The second phase of their research involved interviews with reporters, editors and senior executives. They discovered that, often, news managers are unfamiliar with the complexities involved in discovering, verifying and clearing rights for UGC.

“For newsrooms working with eyewitness media, the biggest problem is verification,” says Wardle. “How do you know that what you’re looking at is what it purports to be?” Wardle differentiates between basic verification, which many should be able to do. If someone sends in or tweets a picture of a tornado, it requires a quick Google search to determine when the photo was taken. Then there is forensic verification, which is more complex, and could involve specific locations and co-ordinates such as in the downing of flight MH17. The Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a Russian missile in July 2014.

“That kind of forensic verification involves skills that come from doing it everyday and being incredibly well versed in it,” says Wardle. “My problem is that lots of newsrooms don’t even have basic skills in verification, and they should have.”

For discovery and verification of UGC, many newsrooms rely on external agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press. One highly regarded source is Storyful, a social media news agency that aggregates content found on social media networks. “We’re looking across the social web on a 24/7 basis to see what’s breaking and what’s coming up from eyewitnesses on the scenes of breaking news,” says Mandy Jenkins, director of news at Storyful. Upon finding those, the team verifies that the content is in fact real, contacts uploaders and obtains copyright clearance. Major news organizations pay a monthly subscription fee, which gives them access to Storyful’s news wire. Storyful has offices in Dublin, Hong Kong, Sydney and New York.

When verifying a piece of UGC, Jenkins says the key points to look out for are its source, time and date and location. Part of the battle is establishing the original source of the content.  By looking at the social footprinting of that author, one can gain a better understanding of their social background, where they live and their possible connection to the story. “A key part of our verification process too is talking to the uploaders directly,” says Jenkins.

Location is a second concept. “It can be anything like looking for landmarks inside of the videos, whether it’s the street sign, and actually going into applications such as Google Maps to compare that against known maps and cityscapes,” says Jenkins.

In terms of date and time, questions to ask include whether the information can be corroborated by other reports from media or eyewitnesses.

“Does it line up with the weather we are seeing there, with the light outside?” Jenkins asks. “Anything that we can do research-wise to back up what we’re seeing in a piece of content or reports that we’re seeing from an eyewitness,” she says.

Jenkins says it would be helpful for newsrooms to have staff working specifically in this area, although there is not always the means for them to do so. “In terms of having someone dedicated to it, it would be great if every newsroom had that, but I know that it’s definitely not always going to be realistic,” she says.

“My problem is that lots of newsrooms don’t even have basic skills in verification, and they should have.”

The BBC appears to be a news organizations that has the largest team solely dedicated to UGC. The UGC Hub sits in BBC’s main newsroom in London, and operates with a staff of about a dozen people. Since its inception in 2005, journalists at the hub have been finding and verifying eyewitness media, and working to deliver content to BBC’s outlets, including world TV, radio and current affairs.

Dhruti Shah, broadcast journalist and producer at the Hub, cites the Paris attacks as a situation in which UGC was abundant. She predicts that more content will continue to emerge as people feel more comfortable sharing. “In that immediate aftermath, people might not have been ready to put things up on Facebook,” she says. Upon discovering tweets and other social media activity from events such as this, the forensic investigation process begins.

“You start putting pieces together and finding out if this is something small, something that could be fake, or does it have the potential to become something bigger,” she says. “Is this the only person talking about it or are there several people talking about this?”

Shah says that they also look at the dialect of the people who are speaking, to ensure that it is consistent with the location, using the BBC’s language services when necessary. Like Jenkins, Shah also stresses the importance of speaking to the creator of the content. In doing so, one can get a sense of the scene around them, and also a sense of whether they are telling the truth.   

Although the team seemingly employs a CSI-style analysis, Shah focuses on going back to basics. “Whenever there’s breaking news, I go back to who, what, why, where, when, how,” she says. “Who has taken this picture, have I spoken to them, why did they take this picture, where were they when they took this picture?”

News organizations may share a photo of the Bataclan concert hall, when it may be a photo that was taken years ago. Suffice it to say, accuracy is a chief concern.  “People come to the BBC because they trust us,” says Shah. “We might be a little bit slower, but we’d rather be accurate.”

Boaz Guttman/Flickr

Boaz Guttman/Flickr

Another ethical consideration is how to approach eyewitnesses during breaking news events, and doing so in a considerate and non-intrusive way.

The rush to quickly obtain a story often causes a media frenzy. “As you saw with the shooting in Oregon, with journalists chasing down eyewitnesses who are still in the middle of an active shooting situation, there are a number of ethical problems with all of this,” says Wardle. Some witnesses to this recent shooting had posted what they saw on Twitter, and were faced with an onslaught of requests from journalists to use their material. Few comments from journalists inquired about the welfare of the eyewitnesses, as many were eager to get the story as fast as possible.

Storyful makes it their mission to consider the safety of uploaders. “We’re always very cognizant of the fact that, especially if it’s a developing situation, they’re not going to be in a position to handle this right away,” says Jenkins. “If they’re not getting back to us right away, we understand what’s happening and we’re not going to keep badgering them over and over again to get a response.”

In May 2015, Wardle and her colleagues at Eyewitness Media Hub published a subsequent study, A Global Study of Eyewitness Media in Online Newspaper Sites. The study highlights a number of issues, particularly in the areas of crediting and labeling. Some newsrooms failed to properly credit eyewitnesses, and credit for some non-embedded content was sometimes attributed solely to social media platforms like YouTube or Facebook. “Whenever somebody posts to any social network, they retain copyright,” says Wardle. Just because it’s on YouTube it doesn’t mean that it’s free to use.”

Such is the case with Alfonzo Cutaia (a registered patent attorney), who captured a video of an approaching storm from his office in downtown Buffalo, NY. His 31-second time-lapse video was uploaded to YouTube on Nov.18, 2014. Soon he was receiving requests from numerous news outlets, asking to share his “Buffalo Lake Effect” video with their audiences. One company that did not ask for permission was CBC, who later posted the video on its website, with the CBC logo as an overlay.

In August of 2015, Cutaia filed a lawsuit to the Western District court of New York State accusing CBC and CNN of “intentional and willful” violation of copyright laws. Cutaia wrote a letter to CBC, informing them of his rights to the video. CBC lawyer Marcel Lacoursiere responded, saying that the video was obtained under a 10-day license from the CNN.

“Ultimately if a news organization does not take steps to ensure that they follow within a category of fair dealing, and they use copyrighted content without the holder’s permission, then it’s infringement essentially,” says René Bissonnette, Associate at Gowlings law firm in Toronto.

News organizations more often rely on fair dealing for news reporting, says Bissonnette. “To have the benefit of that exception, you need to indicate the source of the content…there is also a requirement for the use to be fair,” he says.

“There’s also an attitude of ‘anything that’s on the Internet is in the public domain’, says Bissonnette, who practices advertising, marketing and regulatory law. “It’s increasingly common for people to not even consider the issue, and that’s obviously risky.”

Bissonnette also points to challenges in different jurisdictions. “I think that it’s difficult as well in a global arena like the Internet, where there’s jurisdictional issues as well.”

While much of the focus has been on best practices regarding sources, recent research has focused on the effects that UGC can have on journalists. With recent news stories such as the shooting of two Virginia journalists, newsrooms around the world are flooded with uncensored images of violence and brutality. Journalists viewing such distressing content, there is potential for psychological harm. “The people who work inside newsrooms have to watch a huge amount of graphic content on repeat because they’re verifying it,” says Wardle. “Now there’s a lot of evidence that shows that that’s leading to symptoms like PTSD.”

“We might be a little bit slower, but we’d rather be accurate.”

There is a second question as to whether this kind of content should even be shared, adds Wardle. “I think that what’s happening is because of social media and the idea that everybody is seeing this graphic content, news organizations are more likely to share more graphic content than they would have done previously.”

“The Virginia shooting was a good example of something that hit really close to home,” says Russell. “I work with people who do live hits every day.” Russell says that Global offers mental health resources, and managers sometimes send emails to check in with staff in the event of major incidents.

At Storyful, the issue of vicarious trauma is a pressing one, and Jenkins stresses the importance of asking for help either internally or externally. “This is an issue that our newsroom is very aware of and that we talk about all the time, which I think is honestly one of the most important things that a newsroom can do,” she says.

Shah says BBC is taking the issue very seriously, and journalists have the right to refuse to look at something, if feeling overwhelmed. “If you are exposed to pictures of dead bodies (and other) distressing stories on a regular basis, I think there’s something wrong with you if you weren’t affected to a degree,” says Shah. “I think that what’s most needed is a lot more balance between the light stories you do and the shade stories, because then you realize that the world isn’t a bad place, that good things happen.”

Challenges aside, Shah says her job is very fulfilling. “When you’re in the midst of a breaking story, it’s one of the best feelings because you can make a difference in the way that the reporting is and people’s understandings of what’s going on.”

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