Fostering UGC that maintains audience trust and empowers citizens

Publishers are increasingly engaging with UGC, but the medium still needs a firm set of guidelines that uphold and protect citizens in order to maintain audience trust

REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

By Sahar Amer | Oct 29th, 2019

The introduction of social media in the early 2000’s has supplied newsrooms and journalists with an abundance of content and ‘eyewitness-access’ into potential stories via the public. Sensitive and traumatic events like police shootings and civil war experienced by citizens are providing a side to a story that was previously inaccessible by journalists. This is now growing in normality due to the rise of connected smartphones (roughly 6.4 billion in 2020). 

For example, as the Syrian army closed in on Aleppo in 2016, civilians posted footage of their goodbyes on social media which were pieced together and used by Quartz and CNN. Although publishers have previously experimented with UGC in the context of participatory journalism, engaging in UGC – particularly around sensitive issues – still needs clearer guidelines in order to protect all members involved, empower citizens, and in turn, build audience trust. 

Research from the Reuters Institute Journalist Fellowship Paper, How Newsrooms Use User Generated Content, shares common best practices from UGC experts and journalists. The paper also suggests that newsrooms which successfully engage with user-generated content “build community trust which in turn could encourage audience members to share their content”

Establishing the value of UGC in the newsroom

“If the goal of journalism is to inform society and makes public that which would otherwise be private, then both journalists and citizens engaging with UGC are aligned” 

Kadia Tubman, Reporter, Yahoo! News

Although there are direct ways for publishers to monetize from UGC, it’s also key for a newsroom and/or journalist to recognize the importance of the citizen’s role and other values of UGC, such as: 

  1. Access
  2. Engagement
  3. Empowerment
  4. Democratization

Publishers have been establishing departments dedicated to how they work with UGC, like the BBC UGC Hub, Reuters UGC Newsgathering, and GuardianWitness which has now closed down after 5 years in operation due to using ‘outdated methods’. NPR, BBC and ABC News have also partnered with Hearken, a platform enabling journalists to work with members of the public for reporting purposes. 

Including the public in the news process and aligning them at a journalistic standard enables them to create more powerful stories. It also creates a mutual understanding of both the value of the journalist and the citizen in illustrating reliable content. 

“[UGC] brings people into the moment and I think it really helps them understand how terrifying some news events are. I’d like to think that that gives a greater degree of empathy and a good degree of engagement in the news.”

Hazel Baker, Global Head of UGC at Reuters UK, discusses how Reuters handles its UGC content in the newsroom:

“Reuters has video journalists and photographers on the ground, all over the world, to capture imagery of news events. Yet for many “spot” news stories, the first cameras on the scene may not be professional ones. Instead cameras carried by eyewitnesses usually is their smartphones, this material can be an incredibly valuable aspect of storytelling.” 

She continues, “we pursue this content so that we can distribute it to clients alongside the images and video captured by our own journalists, in order to give a complete package of trusted material for news publishing.”

The question of ethics and accuracy

In a fast-paced, digital-first news environment, content is continuously being uploaded and churned through social media sites. It can be difficult to address some sort of code of ethics when examining UGC, particularly with breaking news. 

“At Reuters, our customers expect us to approach our UGC sources ethically, and to consider factors that may affect their safety. This area of newsgathering has progressed greatly over the past few years, and methods of best practice are now established”, Hazel explains. 

It is important for newsrooms and journalists to adopt a ‘duty of care’ when it comes to assessing how and when to approach people for content in order to avoid putting anyone at risk. For example, the main footage of the bombing in 2017 at Manchester Arena during Ariana Grande’s music concert was filmed by a 14 year old girl, which means parental consent and time sensitivity must be considered to avoid an ethical or legal dilemmas. 

Hazel mentions that at Reuters it’s highly important to thoroughly check the source in order to gain its trust. “We ask our contributors for a lot of detailed information, and in many cases we are asking them to go to the trouble of sending us original source files. It’s imperative that we explain our processes and aims.” 

“Once we have verified and cleared content, we distribute it with all the information we have regarding date, location, source and what it depicts, so that our clients can trust us to have done all of the necessary background checks.” 

Applying a similar standard for protection of the public to protecting the journalist is also necessary. All parties involved in the handling of sensitive UGC has the potential to be negatively affected. ‘Harming the public and journalists does not bode well for trust and reputation’, so it’s important to consider who exactly is involved. 

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