Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content

Ethics of Public Newsgathering

During breaking news events, blog posts often emerge about insensitive journalists using social media to chase people caught up in the action. In our interviews, a number of journalists talked about the difficulties of undertaking public newsgathering via social media when the people who have shot the footage are often very traumatized by what they’ve seen. Some journalists who work regularly with UGC talked about the specific skills required in these situations. As one former journalist argued: My personal view when you’re talking to people who have been in a traumatic situation and you’re asking for their photos, the first question must be, “Are you okay and are you safe? And don’t put yourself in danger.” I’ve seen too many examples of journalists who do just disregard that. They seem to forget that these people are traumatized, or potentially traumatized, or in an extremely dangerous situation. Some people shared experiences of talking with uploaders directly after an event. One journalist who was working the night of the Glasgow helicopter crash described some of the eyewitnesses he spoke to as “befuddled,” but as he explained, “You’d expect that as they’d just seen a helicopter crash into the roof of the pub they were in.” Another journalist described talking to a man who had witnessed a train crash. She said, “I realized then that when people see awful things they don’t necessarily act in a way that is rational.”

There is certainly a distinction between those seeking content and users who find themselves unexpectedly in a breaking news event. A journalist who works daily with UGC talked about the difficulties of building a relationship with someone via a 140-character tweet. “We don’t actually have a policy specifically around [social newsgathering] except to be as polite as possible. You see people just hammering [uploaders]. ‘Call me. Call me. Here’s my number.’ What we try to do is be softer about it, but it’s still the same. You’re still reaching out to them.” We therefore asked journalists whether they were given any guidance or training about public newsgathering, and the specifics of how to reach out to seek permission from someone in shock. The BBC’s UGC Hub has regular support sessions for staff and even training on how to talk to someone who is traumatized; staff welcomed the chance to develop this skill. For most people we interviewed, there was a sense that the ethical issues that surround the use of UGC are no different than other types of ethical decisions. Many interviewees argued that journalists simply needed to use appropriate judgment when it came to using UGC. As a senior producer at the AP explained, “Through training we’ve tried to get people to adapt their instincts to social, so if you were going to knock on the door of a loved one, how would you act? If you’re going to tweet a loved one, how would you act? It should be the same way.” Too often conversations around user-generated content are all about the content, and the user is not considered. This is certainly the case because so few journalists actually work directly with uploaders. They work with the content once it has been discovered, verified, and cleared by someone else in their newsroom, or by an agency. Throughout our interviews, those who worked regularly with uploaders had very different ideas and views about appropriate practice. For example, someone from an agency argued, ``I think a big ethical issue is—what are the rights of the owner of the content, not

just the rights of the content itself? What are their rights to privacy? What are their rights to smart advice upfront? What are their rights to amend or adjust or even edit the video before it’s distributed?” It was rare that these types of moral rights were raised in our interviews. Issues around health and safety have permeated through newsrooms, but these other aspects have not yet been considered in great detail.