Putting the U in user-generated content

Francesca Briga
A panel of five discussed the ethical challenges around crowd-sourced materials

“User-generated content (UGC) is a terrible term,” said Claire Wardle.

The audience laughed, as she continued: “We [tend to] focus on the C, the content, but it’s about the U, the uploaders.”

This was enough to set the tone of the panel discussion on social newsgathering and the ethical challenges that surround it, part of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.

“When people are uploading content, they’re not sending it to a newsroom, they’re sharing it with their friends,” Wardle added. Sourcing through UGC therefore implies that we as journalists are going into their space. We need to explain to people how this works.”

Wardle is Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and focuses most of her work on the fields of social media, UGC and verification.

Verification and accuracy were indeed among the main areas explored by the panel of five, alongside contributors’ safety, and rights and legal issues when sourcing content from the community.

Ethics meet legal issues

“I think it’s important to highlight the distinction and overlap between the legal and ethical aspects,” said Steve Buttry, editor at Digital First Media.

For example, a journalist can have the legal rights to publish certain information, yet if this information has not been verified, it would go against that journalist’s ethical judgment.

What’s more, jurisdictions vary from country to country – and even in different federal states, so that can also be the cause of legal complications, Buttry added. But that seemed to be only half the issue.

“We also live in the country of Facebook, Twitter and Google,” said Marina Petrillo, editor-in-chief of Radio Popolare. “ – and they have their own regulations.”

With the line between legal and ethical issues becoming ever more blurry, journalists will have to rely more and more on their personal judgment when deciding what to publish and what not.

Work with them, not against them

Regardless of the challenges ahead of them, however, the panel was on the same page regarding the fact that user contributions need to receive recognition.

“We should absolutely credit people,” said Fergus Bell, social media editor at Associated Press. “Credit is the currency that people want.” Money, on the other hand, is not a big motivator, he added.

To do that, however, it seems important for journalists to work within similar – if not the same – ethical frameworks. “If one journalist is not treating users ethically, they might not be willing to work with others, even if they’re from another organization,” said Bell.

Building a strong ethical relationship with users, or “the community” as Buttry likes to put it, is therefore of great importance. Yet, that’s only part of the argument.

“Credit goes beyond the courtesy of ethics,” said Buttry. “Credit is an issue of credibility.” Attribution gives information about the source – who they are and perhaps even how they got their information – a form of transparency that works in favor of journalists, sources and readers alike.

“We need to be transparent about how we verify things, so people can learn to do it themselves,” said Bell.

“Users know that they can contribute to news stories, so we need to find a way to work with them by giving them the credit they deserve,” he continued. “[They] should not be people we should be battling against. We need to get into a position where we’re working together.”

Educating users and journalists alike

A way of working together is by having newsrooms make their social media policies public, the panel seemed to agree.

“People are still looking up to media outlets and newsrooms about how to act in terms of social newsgathering,” said journalist and author Barbara Sgarzi.

Based on interviews she has done with Italian lawyers, Sgarzi said that most legal issues arise because users do not read the terms and conditions of social media. “They think they’re toys and not tools to share content,” she said.

It should therefore be media outlets and journalists that take the initiative to educate users about social newsgathering.

Sgarzi has been working closely with an Italian newspaper to write a social media policy and to establish certain rules. Boundaries are of particular importance, since today “any user can become a journalist and every journalist is a user,” she said.

“Newsrooms are not very transparent about the tools they use to verify information, and how it works,” said Wardle. This needs to change. “It’s about media literacy,” she added. “We need to teach [users] how we do things.”

At the end of the day, it has to be a collaborative process. “It needs to be about the community.”

By Mina Nacheva