User-generated content in online news: how to and how not to use it

Pete Brown and Claire Wardle have studied the usage of user-generated content (UGC) across eight major international news companies. At the panel discussion “User-generated content in online news: the good, the bad and the very ugly“, together with the editors of The Guardian and The New York Times, they expressed their concerns about weak UGC policies in the media.

User-generated content: stay away or play?

Pete Brown, media researcher and co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, reported on various cases of inappropriate usage of UGC in the online media. According to his study, quite frequently journalists use original content published online without asking permission to the authors and without giving proper credit.

User generated content panel
Photo: Maddalena Biagiotti

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, admitted that their editorial office had no strict written guidelines on the processing of UGC. However, she underlined that all the content collected from open sources in the web is carefully verified. The majority of UGC publications in The New York Times were related to the coverage of breaking news on ISIS, Sullivan said. Another case is the stories created engaging with their own audience, such as the InstaHamlet flashmob. To engage with a younger audience on social media, The New York Times asked students to submit their performances of scenes from “Hamlet” via Instagram.

Generally, the editorial team prefers to avoid using UGC when it is not necessary, said Sullivan. However, in the digital era user-generated content can be a story on its own. Sullivan recalled the recent fatal police shooting case in South Carolina, where a mobile record of an eyewitness was then used in the investigation.

User-generated content is more actively used in The Guardian. Aron Pilhofer, executive editor of Digital at The Guardian, told that the editorial team applied different strategies to use UGC. The Guardian is encouraging people to share their content on its platform Guardian Witness. The users’ uploads are moderated and the curated content is then used to create stories such as ‘Immigrants in their own words‘. The other strategy is to acquire news-related content from social networks, respecting terms and conditions of the platform and the permission of the author.

Which strategy is more effective? The conservative approach of The New York Times (“do-not-use-unless-necessary”) or The Guardian’s boldest plan?

The journalists expressed their concerns on active use of UGC, as they might violate privacy rights. If the eyewitness’ personal content goes viral after being published, the author might experience unwanted public attention and exposure of its private life. On the other hand, social media can be useful to investigate issues that deserve attention. For instance, Pilhofer suggested that public LinkedIn profiles can be monitored to trace the connections between state officials and private sector companies. This information is of public interest and needs to be disclosed in the media.

Pete Brown noticed that in some cases media companies use eyewitness’ content in a “very ugly” way. He referred to the case of Maddy Campbell, whose photo from Instagram was published in various Australian media despite her expressed prohibition. Brown, who conducted a case study of this incident, noticed that Campbell could as well fill a law suit against the media companies but she was unaware of the legislation.

Is there a case that media use the low legal literacy of the users to benefit from their content? All the panelists agreed that journalistic ethics should forbid such misuse of UGC. However, there is another important perspective. Christian Humborg, executive director at CORRECT!V, argued that media companies should not be shy to use UGC. “Facebook can use users’ content in a way media is not allowed to. From a political perspective, the users’ low awareness of their copyrights in social media poses a certain danger. So, media, please steal more pictures, so people can understand what they signed up for!” said Humborg.