Media outlets love to use citizen journalism, but don’t like to say where they got it or how

While some media outlets feel that “citizen journalism” or user-generated content is diluting or cheapening the practice of journalism, others see it as a rich source of eyewitness reporting about breaking-news events such as the Boston bombing or the war in Syria. As a recently released report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Media points out, however, many of the latter group routinely fail to say where or how they got the content they make use of on their evening news broadcasts, or give any credit to the individuals who created it.

As the study’s authors describe, some of this is because of a lack of structure in newsrooms or established processes when it comes to user-generated content — but some of it also stems from a cultural tension between professional journalists and “citizen” journalists or amateurs.

The Tow study was put together by Claire Wardle, formerly a staffer at Storyful — a company that tracks and verifies user-generated content for large media entities, and was recently acquired by News Corp. — and fellow media researchers Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown. The team released the first phase of their research in April, which was a quantitative look at how much UGC was being used by traditional broadcast outlets, and just released the second phase on May 30.

UGC report table

A majority of UGC is not identified

In the first phase, the authors collected and analyzed more than a thousand hours of television output and over two thousand web pages published by eight international news broadcasters, including the BBC, Al Jazeera English and CNN International. They found that while user-generated content was being used regularly when photos or footage from traditional sources wasn’t available, very few outlets were giving credit to the original creator, or even discussing how they verified it:

“Our data showed that 72 percent of UGC was not labeled or described as UGC and just 16 percent of UGC on TV had an onscreen credit… the majority of news organizations, both online and on television, rarely described where the pictures had come from, acknowledged that people unconnected to the organization had filmed them, or gave credit to the uploader. Verification processes were almost never discussed.”

As Storyful founder and CEO Mark Little is fond of saying, many media companies seem to think that crediting a video to YouTube or a photo to Instagram is sufficient, even though this is a little like crediting a news report to “the telephone.” One of the things that Storyful tries to do, — in addition to verifying where and when a piece of content originated — is to help the original creator maintain their rights to the video or photo, and potentially even monetize it by selling access.

UGC report table1

The second phase of the Tow Center’s research was more qualitative: Wardle and her team interviewed senior executives, reporters and editors at 38 news organizations based in 24 countries, and asked them how they approach the use of “citizen journalism” or eyewitness reporting and what kinds of processes they have in place to verify and/or credit the original source of that reporting.

Some don’t even know where it came from

And what’s the bottom line after all of those interviews and research? On the plus side, most outlets see the value of citizen journalism and user-generated content, especially for breaking news — but on the negative side, procedures for how to handle it and/or credit it are all over the map:

“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.'”

Some organizations have their own UGC team — the BBC, for example, has a dedicated user-generated content desk staffed by about 20 people whose job it is to find and verify photos and videos from around the world in real time. Other outlets have a small group that focus on doing so, while some smaller organizations rely entirely on agencies such as Reuters or AP to come up with footage, and in many cases don’t even know the original source (according to the report, Reuters often only supplies a credit that says “social media website,” while AP supplies as much info as it can).

UGC report table2

Some journalists see it as competition

Apart from the technical or human-resources aspect of the task, the Tow Center report also explains that one of the factors that makes UGC so complicated — and likely affects the desire to credit or pay for it — is that some media outlets and journalists see it as their competition:

“One major tension runs throughout the research [and] 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.'”

As the report goes on to note, viewers are thought of as potential sources for breaking news content once the newsroom has been alerted to a story, but “the audience is not often considered a partner in producing compelling content… this tension will continue to impact discussions about UGC, and it is unsurprising that it runs throughout this research.” In other words, many media companies still see users as faceless suppliers of content for them to use in whatever way they wish, rather than as true collaborators in a journalistic exercise.

The Tow report also notes that many newsroom managers are still unaware of the technical or legal complexities involved in the everyday work of discovering, verifying, and clearing rights for UGC and “consequently, staff in many newsrooms do not receive the training and support required to develop these skills.” The report’s authors point out — as Storyful’s Mark Little has on a number of occasions — that this kind of approach could easily lead to a class-action lawsuit by UGC creators against media outlets that don’t provide credit and/or payment.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen