Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content

Reliance on News Agencies

There is a significant reliance on the agencies for verification, and the majority of newsrooms do not run additional checks. As one foreign editor said: AP says that when they put that material out from YouTube, they have done the same verification process that they would do with writing a wire story […so] we wouldn’t do an additional verification on that, because if we did that, we’d do it for every single story they put out. The strength of the agencies is their networks on the ground. Both the AP and Reuters talked in detail about the role their regional bureaus play in servicing content, and the importance of their local knowledge and language expertise when verifying it. They are very aware of the need to talk to the person who has supposedly shot the footage in order to strengthen the verification process.

It is worth noting that there are different approaches to verification at the AP and Reuters. The AP has standardized technical checks and processes carried out in London after content has been discovered and filtered by the regional bureau that found it. Reuters relies similarly on its bureaus but, while the content is sent to London for cross-checking, there isn’t a formal procedure for verifying social content. Some newsrooms, mainly public service broadcasting organizations in Europe, do additional checks on content from the agencies. There was a view among them that you cannot “outsource verification.” But even those organizations that run additional verification checks on UGC from agencies recognize that if that material has already been pre-vetted, the pre-vetting is one consideration in their own verification process. Verification and the Audience Certainly none of the verification processes or checks undertaken by the newsrooms were shared with the audience, either on television or online. The only mention of verification was the phrase, “These pictures cannot be independently verified,” which is heard very often when UGC is aired. We heard a great deal of soul-searching about the idea. On the one hand the AP has “abolished the phrasing, ‘This cannot be independently verified,’ ” and a report published by the BBC Trust in the summer of 2013 advised that it should not be used on screen or in script20(although we saw some occurrences during our sample period). In other newsrooms, however, it is a standard description, especially when referencing content from Syria. There is a shared awareness that because it is rarely possible to be 100 percent certain about the veracity of a piece of UGC, this phrase acts as a type of insurance policy in case it turns out that the content has been manipulated or misattributed. Some editors and journalists actually saw it as a mechanism of being honest with the audience. As one editor stated, “Particularly where Syria is concerned, if we’re not 100 percent sure that it is what it purports to be then, yes, we will say [this cannot be independently verified]. I have absolutely no issue, and neither does the channel, in being honest with the audience, and I don’t see that changing at all.” But there was also concern that this phrase can frustrate the audience and undermine trust, as it suggests that verification checks have been completed inadequately, and fails to communicate the checks and internal newsroom conversations that have taken place in deciding whether or not to use the content. As one journalist said, “I don’t necessarily like that we have to say it but you’ve got to. We trust our journalists, and we trust our contacts on the ground enough to know that this is what it says it is, but we’ll put the caveat in.” Another producer felt that with certain stories, if a video illustrated a pattern that other sources confirmed, being unable to absolutely verify it in terms of date or exact location didn’t matter if it visualized something important: I would say that, for example, with the barrel bombings [in Syria] you can justify putting user-generated content onto a site and saying, ``We have not verified this is true, but we know that this is happening all over the country and if we have videos of places being barrel-bombed, we would say it is justifiable to push it out in that way as long as you are informing people that they haven’t been 100 percent verified. There were different perceptions about the role of public verification, or publishing content before it has been fully verified in the hope that the crowd can help with the process. Andy Carvin made this form of crowdsourced verification famous during the Arab Spring when he began using Twitter as a mechanism for understanding what was happening on the ground. The same idea of collaborative verification is now happening within Storyful’s Open Newsroom community on Google+.

One journalist raised this issue of publishing content before all verification checks had been completed. He explained that in some situations, when they believed it was in the public’s interest to see certain images, a writeup would be published and a link included to the unverified footage with a disclaimer. It would then be updated with verification information when it was completed. This was a rare position, however, as almost all other newsrooms we spoke with were adamant they would not publish content unless they believed it to be accurate. Newsroom Pressure Newsroom members regularly cited issues relating to the pressures they’re under to publish content before all verification checks are complete in our interviews. One senior editor at the AP said, “I would always rather be last to a story than first to be wrong to a story, and, you know, last to be right with UGC is not a dishonorable place to be.” While many shared this view, the pressure agencies face is slightly different when it comes to newsrooms with audiences and competitors. As someone who used to work on a newsgathering desk said: There is still way too much pressure within news organizations to get stuff up on air before it’s properly verified, before the proper questions have been asked, and there’s just no excuse for that. And no matter what anybody says, in any news organization that absolutely exists and is an issue. And this quote from someone who works on verifying content within a large newsroom:

There’s such pressure to get things on, especially if they’re watching the competition, and they’re running with stuff, and so we have to be really steadfast and put our foot down. Even though producers know they should be verifying it, I can see them being overtaken by the pressure to get it on air. The pressure newsrooms feel they are under to “tweet first, verify later”21where a scoop today lasts 20 seconds at most. You can no longer stay first for long, and as many commentators have discussed, journalists are the ones who are obsessed with the notion; audiences rarely notice.22area of concern when it comes to the topic of user-generated content. However, despite this anxiety, very few newsrooms are using systematic verification procedures and journalists feel they don’t have adequate expertise and would like more specific training on verification. Managers are obsessed by the issue of verification, but have very little knowledge of the specific technical checks that can support the editorial information sourced from uploaders and local experts. Probably because content sourced from social media did not exist when they last worked on a news desk, there is a striking disconnect between managers and those who work with user-generated content. As one senior editor said, “In terms of the verification processes, it’s very hard. We do our best, but every case is different. There’s no system you can set up that makes that work.” In fact, as newsrooms are under more and more pressure, it is even more important that there are systematic procedures in place that can provide clear guidance to the output editors about which checks have been completed, and the level of confirmation regarding specific facts about the footage.

The agencies currently play a critical role in verifying the content that appears on people’s television news screens. However, when the newsrooms themselves have limited knowledge about the checks and procedures that can be carried out around content sourced online, it makes it difficult for them to ask questions of the agencies about those that have already been carried out. The pressure on people to publish quickly will only continue, but there seems to be a growing recognition that newsrooms need to use verification and context to differentiate themselves. Research by the Pew Research Center in 2012 revealed that worldwide, YouTube is becoming a major platform for viewing news. In 2011 and early 2012, the most searched term of the month on YouTube was a news-related event five out of 15 months, according to the company in early 2012.23eyewitness footage on social media, news organizations have to distinguish themselves. As one journalist admitted, “People get [news-related pictures and videos] on Twitter anyway, without the verification, so if you’re going to use it on air, what you’re going to have to bring the audience is the story behind [the pictures].”