1. UGC was used to tell the story of the Syrian conflict almost every day. Thirty-five percent of all the UGC analyzed as part of this research related to the Syria conflict (40 percent of the UGC used on television, and 20 percent used online). This content appeared almost every day during the sample period on at least one of the channels under analysis. This is reflected in the consistent presence of the green column in FIGURE 3 and the navy blue column in FIGURE 4. Of the 2,115 times UGC items coded as appearing on television over the three weeks, 842 concerned Syria. However, those 842 pieces were broadcast over the entire period. By contrast, all 349 of the UGC items identified during the Glasgow helicopter crash appeared on November 29 or November 30, and December 2. Covering the Syrian conflict has been an ongoing challenge for news editors. Limitations placed on foreign journalists to enter or move freely within the country have meant news organizations’ reliance upon UGC as a way of telling the story, and our interviews underlined this dependence. As Reuters admitted, “The activist videos have really formed a foundation of the reporting that comes out of that story.” The AP provided a similar answer, saying, “We don’t use UGC as a replacement. We do send people into Syria when it’s safe to do so but UGC is the way that we’ve been able to tell the story.” An important point some people raised during interviews was that, whereas UGC during breaking news events often produces the most dramatic pictures, in coverage of the Syrian conflict sometimes a package included up to 10 six-second clips from 10 different YouTube channels of white smoke rising against a blue sky. One producer admitted honestly: I wonder—when all [the audience is] seeing is continuous Syria—if you could almost run the same picture every day and would anyone notice? That’s what worries me. Lots of footage of exteriors and the only way we can tell the story is by using these pictures. I’m telling you I’m [putting them] out on air, and I’m thinking this is boring. And I shouldn’t say that because people are dying. I think there were really significant videos with the chemical attacks and the barrel bombs. That introduced us to a new style of warfare that we hadn’t seen before. That was important. It has its moments, but then it’s same, same, same, puff of smoke, puff of smoke. I just wonder about viewer fatigue on that sort of thing.
Certainly Syria could be considered as an outlier. However, we started this research expecting almost all uses of UGC to be around Syria. We were actually surprised that Syria footage didn’t comprise more than 35 percent of the UGC analyzed. The main reliance on UGC was around breaking news events. 2. During breaking news stories, UGC fills the gap while news organizations wait for other pictures. The yellow column in FIGURE 3 illustrates the amount of UGC used in the coverage of the Glasgow helicopter crash. The crash occurred late in the evening (GMT) of November 29, causing a peak in UGC on November 30, when pictures first emerged. Of all the one-off stories (i.e., not ongoing stories like Syria, Ukraine, and the Thailand protests), coverage of the helicopter crash included the most UGC use. There was a clear peak on November 30, because, in the first hours after the crash, most news organizations relied on pictures taken by eyewitnesses and posted on Twitter. For example, BBC World broke the story at 11:08 p.m. GMT, and over the following three hours it used 35 minutes and 15 seconds of UGC. Those 35 minutes were made up of four pictures sourced from Twitter and an unidentified 13-second video of a police cordon. While the economic element of UGC is not part of this phase of research, it has to be acknowledged that 35 minutes of free content is a significant amount of money for a television news channel to save. The crash happened late on a Friday night in Europe, a time when newsrooms are traditionally lightly staffed. However, as the story developed, news agencies and the news organizations themselves were able to get their crews in place in Glasgow. When professional images started to come in, the reliance on UGC was noticeably reduced.
During our interviews, journalists at larger newsrooms talked about sourcing pictures they had discovered themselves on the social Web as a way to fill the gap before agency pictures arrived. One journalist talked about covering the Kiev protests. He explained: [When the Lenin statue was knocked down] I knew professional photographers were there, but I could not see those pictures on the wire yet. I don’t know how they work, but those 10, 15, 20 minutes it took before the pictures showed up on the normal wire we had used a picture from this guy from Kiev, [which he had] posted on social media. 3. UGC is used when no other pictures exist. As the previous section illustrated, UGC fills a gap before other pictures emerge. It also drives stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told. During our sampled time frame, secretly filmed UGC exposed serious police brutality in Egypt and the Ukraine, footage captured from a dive rescue team’s cameras showed the unexpected discovery of a man alive in a sunken ship, and a group of children in Damascus narrowly avoided a mortar shell that landed near to where others were talking to a camera in the street. Someone who works on a foreign desk conceded that “[UGC] makes it possible to tell stories that you wouldn’t have previously told because of lack of pictures.” Indeed, an interviewee based in the Investigations Unit at a San Francisco television station described how secretly filmed videos play an increasingly prominent role in tipping off journalists about the need to undertake investigations into certain subjects. As people don’t tend to upload that type of content to the social Web, he emphasized the need to build strong relationships with the audience in order to encourage them to alert news outlets to these types of stories.
Similarly, we saw a piece of drone journalism used by multiple broadcasters during our sample period. A citizen journalist in Bangkok took the footage during the protests of November/December 2013. As a research team, we had noted the absence of any UGC from the Bangkok protests and concluded this was likely due to the city’s status as an international media hub—broadcasters either had their own camera people there or relied on the agencies to provide enough content to fill the one to two minutes dedicated to this story every day, we suspected. However, when the drone footage emerged, the aerial shots were so powerful and entirely distinct from the pictures coming from the ground that a number of the broadcasters in our study ran them. Drone footage is appearing much more frequently, particularly during large-scale protests.12research study into drone journalism, explained: In some ways UGC is the best way to get drone photography because of the legal situation around creating it yourself. A lot of organizations are really seeking that kind of content out. In some ways that might be driving drone journalism in an era where doing it professionally is very difficult [because of the regulations that currently exist]. In some ways the amateur drone journalism going on might be more interesting. 4. UGC was used as part of news programs dedicated to the Web. One trend that has emerged over the last couple of years is 24-hour news channels producing programs or segments entirely dedicated to the Web and social media. On Al Jazeera English, it is called The Stream, on BBC World, it is BBC Trending, on France 24 there are two: Les Observateurs and Sur Le Net. These programs tend to be 15 to 30 minutes long, and focus on those topics trending on social media before launching into longer pieces of journalism around the subjects. What’s notable here is that, where elsewhere particular channels might seemingly try to hide the fact that they were using UGC—by either failing to label or credit appropriately—these
dedicated programs went out of their way to emphasize their use of it. So, for example, rather than taking down clips from YouTube and using them in packages, one show played a YouTube video using a computer screen so the content’s source was quite clear. There was such an emphasis on the social networks that, during an episode of The Stream about Nelson Mandela’s death, the original footage of him leaving Robben Island prison was played from YouTube, even though the event itself was over 20 years old. Elsewhere, France 24’s Les Observateurs, a program entirely dedicated to UGC, focused on uploaders, giving them a platform to tell the story of the event they had captured from their own perspective. The uploaders appeared on screen, and were named in the final credits of the program as if they were producers.