The primary method of UGC discovery differs by newsroom. Key variables for this are newsroom size and geographic reach. National news organizations tend to rely almost entirely on agencies for UGC to complement their international stories. They have neither the audience reach to expect eyewitnesses to send them content directly, nor the internal resources or expertise to scour social networks for reliable and trustworthy content. These organizations do, however, tend to look actively for UGC to supplement their coverage during domestic news events, such as bad weather stories,
riots, and elections. As one high-level news manager explained, “We get UGC mostly from news services. Stuff that comes in independently would be more domestic than international.” 1. Content is located at the scene of a breaking news event. A number of interviewees referenced the piece of footage that emerged around the murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in London in May of 2013. The footage, which features one of Rigby’s killers talking directly into the mobile phone of a passerby, explaining his actions, was considered a watershed moment for UGC. Purchased by ITN for an undisclosed fee, the video was used by news organizations across the world either via syndication, partnership distribution agreements, or fair use. Many of the UK broadcasters with whom we spoke discussed how this event triggered internal discussions about buying footage from the scene of breaking news events. In particular, newsrooms identified a need to send senior journalists with the authority to spend money, as well as ensure that producers had the appropriate contracts ready for people to sign at the scene. One senior broadcaster shared his thoughts about the future of newsgathering, arguing that the best pictures will always come from eyewitnesses on the ground who have captured footage on mobile phones. He wondered aloud whether a smarter use of resources would be to send producers out to purchase exclusive content, rather than sending their own cameras to film. 2. Newsrooms encourage people to send photos or videos directly. Large 24-hour news channels have audience-reach, which means they are often sent pictures and videos directly. The BBC, in particular, still has the luxury of a global audience, many of whom know the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. CNN has iReport, a citizen journalism project established in 2006, which has built a very active community of “iReporters” who respond to daily calls to action, some of them linked to softer features’ topics, but many connected to hard news events. In addition, Al Jazeera Arabic has its
own very successful UGC portal called Sharek. According to research carried out by Juliette Harkin and colleagues, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Sharek portal was receiving “more than 200 videos per day and up to 1,000 videos on Fridays.”14led to the launch of the organization’s Mubasher channel. Mubasher, the Arabic word for live, features continuous live streams, many of which are filmed by citizen journalists on the ground. During our coding of Al Jazeera Arabic, a large number of live streams were used, some of which ran for minutes at a time. Our analysis also showed that Al Jazeera Arabic used an average of 50 pieces of UGC per day, considerably more than the 11 pieces averaged by the other channels. The success of the Sharek portal has clearly played a significant role in the amount of UGC used on a daily basis. Newsrooms prefer to receive content directly, as it provides them with exclusive content and the terms and conditions outlined on their websites mean that contributors have already accepted that they are giving the newsroom certain rights to use the content across the organization and its partners. However, because audiences have become used to sharing the content they capture on their own social networks, many interviewees talked about the challenge of encouraging people to send them content directly. People who work on successful UGC initiatives such as iReport, and the more recent GuardianWitness project, talked passionately about the need to build relationships with the audience. They emphasized the need to think about content creators as a community, showing contributors how their content had been used and how it had improved the news organization’s storytelling. They were adamant that this was the key over sitting back, simply thinking that a general call to action after a news event would result in high-quality submissions.
3. Newsrooms find content shared on social networks. Many interviewees discussed how their newsrooms have shifted from dismissing the notion that social networks can be used as a newsgathering tool, to becoming increasingly reliant on them. As one digital editor explained: Everyone has got Twitter, Tweetdeck, or Hootsuite open on their desks. Everyone has. Even those who used to be quite reluctant to engage with it, and thought it was all about Miley Cyrus, they are all now doing it. It’s good for us, because rather than being the people who have everything open and are expected to find [UGC], we’re the ones who say, “Be careful with that.” Another editor talked about the way that social newsgathering has been integrated within the newsroom. “It’s totally embedded. Our people on the news desk are monitoring social media all the time for tip-offs, pictures, videos, sources.” A small number of newsrooms admitted rarely using UGC within their output. One example shared by RUV, the national broadcaster in Iceland, highlighted the differences that can still exist between international and national organizations. In December of 2013, Iceland experienced its firstever instance of a police officer shooting and killing a civilian. CNN, thanks to someone in its iReporter community, received UGC coverage of the immediate aftermath. RUV did not use any UGC in its reporting of this major domestic event. Searching for UGC is not currently part of RUV’s newsroom mindset and it does not have an equivalent to CNN’s community of iReporters. Although our research was focused on how newsrooms find content after a news event occurs, our interviews and observations revealed that Twitter is a primary means by which reporters are alerted to breaking news. CNN is currently using DataMinr for a trial, and journalists certainly felt that the alerts were consistently quicker that the traditional news agency wires.
Similarly, the BBC has a position on its central newsgathering hub called the “Live and Social” position. There, one person is charged with monitoring Tweetdeck, and is fully loaded with lists of verified sources to give the BBC a leg up on breaking stories. Other newsrooms rely on the @Storyful- Pro Twitter account that pushes out verified breaking news alerts sourced from Twitter. 4. News agencies play a role. One of the main findings from this research is the role news agencies play in the workflow that surrounds UGC in all broadcast newsrooms.15is a heavy, if understated, reliance on the main television news agencies AP and Reuters. All the television-based organizations we interviewed were subscribers to one or both of these agencies. There are other smaller agencies competing in this space, such as AFP TV; the television arm of the French news agency Agence France Presse; and Ruptly, the agency arm of the Russian broadcaster RT. Storyful,16discovers and verifies UGC, has acquired a significant client base in a short period. Also important are content exchange platforms, such as the Eurovision News Exchange operated by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This platform primarily enables the members of the EBU—Europe’s public broadcasters—to exchange content between each other.17content, including UGC. The Eurovision News Exchange is also a client of Storyful on behalf of its members and distributes content discovered, verified, and cleared through them. Many of the public broadcasters interviewed acknowledged the role that the Eurovision News Exchange plays in distributing UGC for their use. Fifty percent of the news organizations coded in the quantitative part of the research were Eurovision News Exchange partners.
For almost every newsroom, the news agencies play a very significant role in terms of discovery, verification, and rights clearance. Surprisingly, the scale of their impact is not always recognized, with some smaller national newsrooms actually stating they “don’t use UGC,” without realizing that many of the pictures they accept from the agencies are actually user-generated content. (This is particularly troubling as UGC distributed by the agencies is very clearly labeled as such, perhaps illustrating just how few journalists read dopesheets properly!) For other newsrooms, the role agencies play is fully appreciated. As one social media editor explained, “My personal take is that if something happens we would be one of lots of news organizations wading in, going, ‘Can we use your picture?’ whereas actually that is what Storyful does for us.” As well as simply integrating content that the agencies distribute, some newsrooms that discover content themselves will actually send it to the agency. “We do get clients flagging stuff up to us, [saying], ‘Have you seen this?’… We want to be belt and braces certain of something before we use it, [which is why certain newsrooms will] give [UGC] to one of the agencies and see what they can do with it.” These platforms have always been an important source of international news coverage. The news agencies are often the first into conflict zones or at breaking news events and the last to leave—and broadcasters have relied on this for years. Nothing has changed in this regard when it comes to UGC. The agencies’ clients or partners demand it, so much so that they have had to rebalance and learn how to source and verify UGC to the required standards. One foreign editor at a medium-sized channel clearly explained the benefit for the broadcasters, saying, “Arguably, that’s the best way of getting UGC. Somebody else has done the work for you, because that’s what we pay them for.”
We conducted interviews at both the AP and Reuters, and because of their impact on the use of UGC within newsrooms around the world, it’s important to examine exactly how these agencies work in terms of UGC. We requested an interview with AFP, but received no reply. AP and Reuters have taken slightly different approaches in their UGC workflows. The AP has established a dedicated social media desk, with a social media editor and producer. Reuters TV has kept the role as part of the main news desk’s responsibilities. What was noticeable about the workflow at both agencies was the reliance on bureaus and staff on the ground. As Fergus Bell from the AP explained: Through training we have got the whole staff onboard so everyone knows that they have to monitor social media. If it’s video then people know that they can send it to me and I can take on the verification or advise them on the verification. But text, video, and photojournalists at the AP have all been told that they need to be aware of things on their patch, that if there’s verification needed for something in their patch then they will be the ones having to do the verification. I’ve seen so much that I can usually spot something that’s not right a mile off, so we put it through as many eyes as possible. Any contentious UGC gets alerted to senior managers, to senior editorial management before it gets put out. So there’s lots of eyes to catch it, but also the responsibility is on the experts in the region. Reuters relies similarly on its own network of bureaus, but does not have a dedicated verification desk at its London headquarters. The decision to use UGC rests with the editor of the day. As Soheil Afdjei, news editor for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, explained: Our structure for UGC is developing as we use more of it. The way we’re set up in terms of the number of bureaus we have around the world gives us that foundation to search for UGC around an event at a bureau on a regional hub level, where the story has happened and
people are closer to the story. They know the territory better, they speak the language, they can cross-reference with colleagues who work for us on the text side or the pictures side [of the house]. In terms of using it and publishing it we then go through the verification process. It’s verified at the bureau level, regional hub level, then it comes to us and the editor of the day. They look at it and we discuss the merits and the caveats for running it, or not running it. That said, both agencies were clear that at no point do they think that UGC replaces their own work. As the head of output at one explained, “UGC is an extra tool in the box, and it supplements the work that we’re doing, but at no point does it ever replace it.”