As the BBC’s deputy director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, reminds us, “UGC is nothing new,” it’s just “much more prevalent than it ever was because everybody has a camera.” Frank Zapruder’s film of the assassination of President Kennedy and George Holliday’s shaky footage of the beating of Rodney King remind us that eyewitness pictures were newsworthy long before the famous picture of the plane landing on the Hudson river—the one often used as the definitive example of UGC. The history of user-generated content within the mainstream broadcasting context usually begins with the London bombings in July of 2005. This was the first time the BBC led a bulletin with imagery not filmed by a BBC camera, using pictures captured by people escaping the scene via underground tunnels. It was also the news event that convinced the BBC to establish its UGC Hub, then just a pilot project, as a permanent fixture within the newsroom. However, according to Patricia Whitehorne, who was part of that very small UGC project, the tsunami on December 26, 2004 was the first occasion on which UGC was sought in a systematic way. “That was the first time that the News Channel [then News 24] was beating on our door, saying, ‘We need photos, we need eyewitnesses, we need emails.’ They sent a correspondent to do a package about the UGC that was coming in from the tsunami, and I think that was the first time they really saw the value, or the potential of it.” However, Whitehorne admitted that it took a while for attitudes to change. “I remember right at the beginning, having to go to different editorial meet ings, just trying to convince people of the value of UGC, explaining what it is. There always used to be a joke, that whenever we said UGC, they’d say, ‘Isn’t that a chain of cinema?’ It took a lot of explaining.” In terms of understanding the trajectory of newsroom attitudes toward UGC, numerous interviewees cited the Iranian protests in June of 2009 as a watershed moment. John Ludlum from Reuters said, “That was one of the first times that we started to see [UGC] and took tentative steps towards using it.” Mark Little, then a foreign correspondent at the Irish public broadcaster RTÉ, talked passionately of his personal frustration at not being sent to Tehran to cover the election in 2009. He quickly realized, however, that he was able to access vast amounts of information via Twitter and YouTube, although he struggled to know what to trust. As a result he left his job at RTÉ and founded the social news agency Storyful. According to most of our interviewees, 2011 was the year that UGC went mainstream across newsrooms. As Chris Hamilton, manager of the BBC’s UGC Hub, explained: [The year] 2011 was a very big watershed. Obviously you had the Arab Spring getting under way, but that was also the same year as the Japan tsunami, the riots in England, and the massacre in Norway. All of those were big, really mass participation events… and news organizations were able to take advantage of that to tell those stories better than they could have told them before. Our research revealed the Syrian conflict as the main impetus for UGC use during the three-week period we studied. In fact, 40 percent of all the UGC we analyzed during our sample period was connected to Syria. And for some organizations, it was the only story for which they integrated UGC. Peter Barabas, editor-in-chief for news at euronews, admitted that his organization has only “started using [UGC] dramatically over the past two years. The war in Syria made it very clearly a necessity because there is no way for us to cover Syria other than UGC.”
And certainly, learning how to use UGC from Syria has had an inevitable impact on the way UGC is used for other stories. As Geertje Bal from the foreign desk at VRT in Belgium explained, “People are using UGC more for other stories because the Syria conflict opened the way. In the past you would say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t do that with amateur material, but it has become more accepted because we had to do it for Syria.” The impact of mobile-phone penetration, with higher quality built-in cameras, combined with improvements in connectivity, cheaper data, and the fact that social networks are still growing in popularity globally, means usable eyewitness footage will simply become more of a regular occurrence. Derl McCrudden, head of newsgathering for AP Television News, explained this cycle: I think the use of UGC has inevitably gone up because we’re in a more connected world. More of us have phones… and therefore more people become accidental eyewitnesses to events. And the more that happens, the more demand there is for the content because you capture what people want. So the more we look for it, and then filter it, and verify it and make sure that it’s good to go, the more we therefore put out incrementally. A significant development in the past couple of years is journalists filming content themselves on their smartphones and uploading it to social networks. One news organization admitted deciding it needed a specific term for this type of content, so now call it JGC—journalist-generated content. There is also a growing phenomenon of aid workers and field staff using their phones to create content to share widely on social networks. By capturing pictures of refugees crossing the Jordanian border, or people sheltering at Bangui M’Poko Airport in the Central African Republic, they know these pictures will be seen by their own supporters and may drive fundraising. There’s also an awareness that news organizations are looking for this type of footage, particularly from places where they are struggling to send their
own reporters. This content type is included within our broad definition of UGC, as the pictures are available on personal social media accounts. However, in the same way that our interviewees discussed the need to be transparent with agendas associated with activist groups’ uploaded video from Syria, the humanitarians capturing these pictures are not accidental journalists. They have their own motivations, and this should also be explained to the audience. Definition The phrase user-generated content has always been an unpopular one.2one has managed to create an alternative that adequately describes the phenomenon. In research conducted by one of this report’s co-authors about UGC in 2008, a typology of five different types of UGC was developed,3from community journalism initiatives and user-generated opinion and comment. Again, 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. This means statements posted on social networks by newsmakers (e.g., celebrities, politicians, sports people, or institutions like the United Nations) that are using social networks to bypass traditional public relations channels are not classified as UGC. So, for example, a golfer posting a picture of a new set of clubs he’s received from his sponsor does not qualify. On the other hand, a picture tweeted by a soccer player of himself watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup draw with his teammates is included, as it is not classified as P.R. Additionally, pictures or footage shot by an individual aid worker would be included (although, in fact, no examples of this appeared in our sampled timeframe).