There were eight different reasons given for why UGC is used; some practical, some about quality, some editorial, and some relating to the audience. The most frequent reason given for using UGC was that it provided the only available pictures. As one journalist argued, “After an event, all you can take a picture or film of is the police blue line.” Another editor talked about receiving footage of a flood. “It was absolutely in the moment. The footage was actually shot through a car windscreen and the windscreen wipers are going crazy. It had quite good audio on it as well. So, you got the real drama of the storm, not just the damage that was left behind.” Speed was also mentioned. “UGC is so much faster. It’s ridiculously fast,” said one interviewee. Another online journalist explained, “In the online business it’s very competitive between news sites and we can’t really afford to wait 30 minutes for a picture on the wire. So if social media can give us a picture instantly, we will use it.”
Other journalists talked about specific characteristics of UGC. “In places like Syria or Egypt, or even in Ukraine, [people with phones] become your eyes and ears on the ground, and they’re able to feed content to you from up close. [The footage] can be a lot more personal than maybe [professional journalists] would [get] carrying a big camera with them.” Another editor echoed this point, saying, “It makes it feel real because rather than having someone standing in front of a camera—you know, your average white bloke in a tie—you have something handheld and jerky… It makes it feel more real and gritty.” Chris Hamilton, from the BBC, cited the London bombings, saying there were lengthy discussions about whether the audience would accept the shaky footage taken by people being led to safety through the underground tunnels, compared to now, when editors are specifically looking for unsteady UGC footage because they know the audience equates that with authenticity. Now, editors can worry that footage filmed by people on the ground with their HD camera phones looks too slick. Another benefit of UGC raised by some journalists was the diversity of voices it provides, extending beyond traditional sources listed in internal contact databases. One editor cited Ukraine as an instance where UGC provided “different angles and views that we were not getting from anywhere else.” Another senior journalist explained how UGC was integrated into coverage of the same story: We get a lot from Ukraine and it gave us diversity. We would have been able to cover it [anyway] because we ultimately put two or three teams there in Ukraine—a couple of correspondents and representatives— but we really did use UGC for a diversity of voices on the ground. This is especially the case if you’re a major TV broadcaster and your correspondents are tied to the shot 24-7. They’re in a live position. We try and let them off to do their newsgathering, but most of the time they can’t leave that satellite position.
One BBC journalist explained how social media has changed its newsgathering techniques. “A couple of times I’ve been really, really stuck and I’ve thought, ‘I’ll have a look in the World Service contacts [directory],’ but I feel like a failure if I do that. I think it’s right that it feels like that because you’ve got to have new voices on air.” Other journalists explained how UGC has allowed them to continue the life of stories after the rest of the mainstream media had moved on to other events. David Doyle from Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom outlined his experience covering barrel bombings in Syria, saying, “An example of one that we’ve done recently was barrel bombings. It’s been going on a long time so it stops being a story, but by using the user-generated content, we were able to get some very striking images. It allowed us to explore this phenomenon in depth. [The UGC] really brought home what is happening on the ground.” UGC helped Channel 4 keep what Doyle called a “war crime”13Basically, it’s this huge human rights violation. It’s a war crime that’s going on but because it’s sporadically happening across the country the victims are often smaller in numbers—smaller numbers than there were in the chemical attack in August. Therefore, it doesn’t get picked up in the same way, but you can comment and really bring home what is happening on the ground. While our study did not include any element of audience research, some journalists talked about the ways in which they feel UGC strengthens their relationship with viewers, providing them with the opportunity to become part of the storytelling process. One European editor argued, “I think [UGC] deepens our relationship with the audience.” Another journalist, who works daily with communities creating content, spoke passionately about the way UGC allows people to tell their own stories. Using protests in Istanbul’s
Gezi Park during May and June of 2013 as an example, she described how the protestors told their own stories. “We didn’t tell their story for them and I think that’s very, very important,” she said.