Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content

1. Responsibility Toward Uploaders

Health and Safety Overall, among the journalists with whom we spoke, there was a real awareness of the health and safety implications related to uploaders putting themselves in harm’s way. Many journalists talked about the need to phrase calls to action carefully, so it didn’t appear they were encouraging people to put themselves in danger. They also talked about the need to be careful that the request didn’t look like their news organization was commissioning people to film for it. Fran Unsworth, deputy director of news at the BBC, shared the organization’s experience during the Buncefield blaze of 2005, when a huge fire broke out at a fuel depot just outside London. Local teenagers got very close to the fire to film and, having been told by BBC producers on the ground that their pictures were “too wobbly,” leapt up and announced they would go and get better ones. They were told not to do so, as they were putting themselves

in danger. This forced the BBC to rethink its processes around UGC, and it rolled out a specific training course regarding working with user-generated content and uploaders. Caroline Bannock, who works on the GuardianWitness project, explained how her organization has changed the phrasing of its calls to action, discarding “send us your pictures” in favor of “share your pictures with us.” She continued: I’m actually quite careful in a protest, so if someone is sending in photographs of someone doing something that they could be picked up for by security services, I won’t publish that. These people aren’t journalists; they’re sending us snapshots and they’re sending us stories. They don’t have that sort of journalistic sensibility. So we’re particularly careful. Similarly, the AP talked about the specific dangers of geo-location technology. Fergus Bell explained, “We didn’t use some Bambuser live streams because I could work out on Google Maps where they were and we were not going to put that out live. Because if I know where they are, if I can pinpoint the roof that they’re on, other people can too.” Despite some examples of good practice, there was also the sense that good pictures were good pictures, and while news entities wouldn’t actively encourage people to put themselves in danger, if good pictures came in, most would use them. And while a large section of this report talks about the importance of seeking permission, there was certainly an understanding by most that, when working with uploaders from certain countries, not seeking permission is the right thing to do. One BBC journalist working on a photo gallery from Iran told us, “As someone from the BBC it really raises a person’s profile if they’ve posted the image, by me saying, ‘Hello, can I use it? I’m from the BBC.’ So in that instance the Persian service advised that it’s better to just use it.”

Some people have given a great deal of thought to the blurring line between freelancers and citizen journalists. Increasingly news organizations are stating they won’t use freelancers in Syria because of a concern about inexperienced journalists taking serious risks without being insured. A few believed the same issues were emerging with amateurs as well. One foreign editor talked passionately about the potential impact of these new licensing agencies on citizen journalists: There are agencies popping up [and] encouraging people to film and send them material. [Those people] then edit it and send it out and say, “Here are some images of an incident that took place yesterday in Tahrir Square,” or whatever. Now, I’m nervous and wary of them because you’re saying to people, if you go and film in dangerous places, we’ll give you some money, and if we sell it on, we’ll give you some of the benefit. Now that seems to me no different from commissioning someone to go to a nasty place when you’re not prepared to go yourself. So you have a duty of care over the people who are shooting that, so I don’t use any of those. There was certainly a wariness around providing technology to people on the ground, particularly in areas where it would be impossible to gain access. The case of the 18-year-old boy who died in Syria, who had been taking photographs on a camera supplied by Reuters, was mentioned as a warning to all news organizations about the responsibilities of the industry to protect and support citizen and accidental journalists.35