Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content


“There’s a Wild West attitude about getting stuff off the Internet” was a phrase that peppered our interviews. Most journalists, however, now know that copyrights exist with uploaders even after they share it on a social network and understand the need to seek specific permission to use someone’s content. Still, there’s a difference between what people know and what people do.24rolling news means that there are more situations on 24-hour news channels where a senior editor will make the decision to run with pictures without securing permission (knowing they will “sort it out” retrospectively if necessary) than on daily bulletin programs. Broadcasters working outside the pressures of rolling news explained that obtaining permission from an uploader was mandatory before using content. Online differentiates itself from television again because most websites have the capability of directly embedding social content. There were mixed responses about whether a news site has to seek permission before embedding content. There is no legal precedent here and many people are aware that this is a difficult space. The terms and conditions of the different social networks mean their users have agreed that their content can be embedded on different sites, but a number of journalists expressed disquiet about publishing someone’s Twitpic on their site via an embed code, since that person will not even know it has happened.25discussed the ethics of embedding selfies women had taken for Cancer Research UK’s “no-makeup selfies” campaign.26pictures were public because they

had been posted on Twitter, but publishing them on a news website seemed to change the context considerably for the journalists to whom we spoke. Some people suggested that they would like users to get an automated alert via the social network if their content is embedded elsewhere. Even online journalists, who admitted they sometimes didn’t contact uploaders before embedding their content, admitted this only happened if the photo had little hard-news relevance. Most people who work with UGC discussed the need to talk to the uploader on the phone, not only to help with the verification process but also the newsgathering one, as people often had other footage. As one website editor explained: We would try and contact that person, not least to say, “What else do you see, what else was happening at the time, who else was there?” We’d do it to get more journalism out of it, but generally speaking, if it is a still, an Instagram still, we would just use the embed code. We wouldn’t feel obliged to contact them. We would only contact them if we wanted to use it in a way that made it ours and we want to talk to them about the story. Overall, it is very rare that newsrooms pay for UGC. Many interviewees justified this reality, stating that most uploaders don’t care about payment. As one senior manager explained, “Occasionally people ask us for money. Nine times out of 10 in the UGC space it’s not about money, it’s about attribution and permission.” However, there was an awareness that this is gradually changing as audiences recognize the value of their content, and licensing companies spring up, contacting uploaders and promising money either directly or via revenue- share agreements. As one producer argued, “I think what has changed is that people are shooting stuff with ever greater quality with their phones and now appreciate the value of what they’ve got.” Some interviewees talked about the need for the industry to look ahead at the long-term implications of these trends.

We saw a consensus among interviewees that once UGC has been uploaded to a social network it loses all value, as it can no longer be an exclusive for a news organization. The example of the exclusive amateur footage secured by ITN in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London, in May of 2013 was referenced multiple times in interviews with UK-based organizations. This UGC scoop won ITN the UK’s Royal Television Society award for Scoop of the Year for 2013. In announcing the award the jury noted, “When ITN broadcast the shocking pictures of the murderer of Lee Rigby filmed by a bystander on a mobile phone, the team were ahead of the pack.”27interviewed could cite the exact figure the British broadcaster paid for that exclusive, editors at different newsrooms talked about how it had impacted their newsgathering practices in terms of thinking about sending producers to a breaking news event ready to spend money and present legal documents if necessary. The process of securing permissions for use differed greatly. It ranged from an online form written by company lawyers for an uploader to sign, to a simple tweeted “yes” (as long as it was screen-grabbed for later proof). There was a clear awareness of the tension between the need to secure rights in a way that will stand up in court, and the realities of traumatized uploaders sharing content on social networks during breaking news events, often in situations where Internet connections are unreliable.