Not so long ago, almost nobody imagined a time when almost everybody would carry a camera at virtually all times. “Home videos” or even still photos of breaking news were the rare exception. These days it seems everything happens on camera. We’re surprised when video of breaking news isn’t available -- and almost immediately.
That’s because there is now nearly universal access not only to devices that record events, but, through social media, to networks that distribute images, audio and eyewitness accounts almost instantaneously. No longer do those who create such content have to deliver it to news organizations for distribution. Content creators can and do distribute for themselves, sometimes even live; “mainstream media” outlets are among the recipients -- often along with millions of others.
These changes do not diminish the stakes when journalists come into possession of “user-generated content” -- that is, images, audio and video recorded by non-journalists. As Edward R. Murrow warned us long before the internet existed, the ability to reach enormous audiences doesn’t come with a guarantee of accuracy, credibility, context or fairness.
The questions below, from our current Coverage Guidelines on UGC, remain relevant and valuable. They appear here with only minor revisions to reflect technological and societal changes of recent years.
- Is the content newsworthy? Journalists should consider whether they are using video or audio just because they have it, or if it has a legitimate editorial purpose in the newscasts or on the web page.
- What is the motive for the submission? Has it been submitted by someone wishing to share important or interesting content, or does it come with an agenda? If journalists determine the content has an agenda (such as video of a politician which would cause him embarrassment), will you reveal that motive for submission? Will you identify the person who submitted it?
- Will the organization pay for user-generated content? Many newsrooms have a policy about paying sources for information. Some may already have policies in place regarding paying for video. Journalists should review any existing policies or determine whether they need to develop guidelines regarding payment for video, audio and other content that comes from non-journalists.
- Is the video or audio staged, enhanced or altered in any significant way? Could someone have faked what appears to be happening in hopes of having it aired or published? Journalists should exercise great care, since this content has not been produced through an editorial chain under their review and control. What steps can be taken to determine the authenticity of submitted content?
- Will airing or publishing the content produce instances of “copycat” behavior? Will the fleeting fame of having video or audio broadcast or published push others to produce similar content? Does the content depict actions by people who were intoxicated or otherwise not in control of themselves?
- Does the content invade someone’s reasonable expectations of privacy? Professional video and audio equipment used to be readily obvious to those being recorded. New technology can be more easily concealed. Journalists should consider whether content that appears to have been obtained surreptitiously meets the same standards as hidden camera or microphone work done by professionals. State laws regarding the broadcast of surreptitious recordings will apply regardless of who recorded the content.
- Is the content technically airworthy? Will viewers or listeners be able to make out what is going on? Production standards may not be the same for content produced by non-journalists, but if it is too unclear, audiences will need help understanding what they are supposed to see, hear or understand.
- Are there instances of content you would use on your website or social media channels but not air? How should standards differ by platform, if at all?
- Do the characteristics of certain social media platforms require explanation or modification of content in any way? Consider that some apps produce reverse-image video. Should that be “fixed” or addressed in any way?
- Who is served by airing the content and what are the potential consequences of its use? Journalists should explore how user-generated content serves audience and public interests.