User-generated content

This section deals with the following ethical issues:

Note that this section focuses strictly on social newsgathering. See the module on “Social Networks” for issues related to distribution and engagement over social networks.

The ability to gather user-generated content, from social networks and elsewhere, is an indispensable tool in the modern journalist’s arsenal. From a tornado in Oklahoma, to a war in Syria, working with members of the public to distribute powerful information and imagery has made major news events come to life — and, in some cases, has made them possible to cover to begin with.

At the same time, gathering and distributing this sort of content raises a wide range of ethical concerns. Here are some key issues to consider, with multiple approaches to each.

Verification and accuracy

A key ethical consideration is the importance of accuracy and the risk of misinforming the public by passing along bad information and fake or misleading content. Approaches:

Verification first. The news organization must verify all UGC, through all available technological and human means, until confident of its veracity. If a suitable level of verification can’t be achieved, the material isn’t used or reported on. One source of verification techniques is the Verification Handbook released in 2014 by journalists from several leading news and government organizations and NGO’s.

Third-party help. The news organization factors in the verification efforts of third parties, including other news organizations, verification shops or individual readers, and sometimes fully relies on the work of these outside groups to verify a piece of UGC.

Focus on transparency. Move quickly to share information and content gathered from the public, as long as it meets a baseline level of plausibility. Be clear that the UGC isn’t fully verified, and ask the public for information it might have that could help with authentication. Update as more verification details are available. If this ends up being inaccurate or otherwise unreliable material, explain why it turned out to be inaccurate. This approach runs the risk of spreading inaccurate information among those who consume your news and misinforming readers..

Rights, permission and credit

Who has the right to use and distribute UGC? No matter what your approach, there’s value in trying to inform potential contributors about how their material might be used by your news organization. This can be done in a prominent place on your website and mobile app, and can also be referenced in print, broadcasts and communication with contributors. Here are some approaches to permission and credit:

Permission first. Under this approach, the news organization gets permission from the content creator before using UGC on any platform. Depending on a news organization’s legal considerations, this might be verbal or in writing, and could be either a simple “OK” or signing off on specific clearance language. Unless instructed otherwise by the content creators, they are credited when the work is distributed.

Use once verified. Some news organizations use the content as soon as they’ve verified it to their standards, with or without permission, which they might continue to pursue. This might include news organizations that embed UGC on a website or in a mobile app as permitted by a social network’s terms of service. They might do this, because they believe the interest in informing outweighs concerns about rights and permission. This approach might sometimes stand up in a court of law, but raises questions from an ethical perspective.

Factor in news value. This is an approach between the above — in general, you get permission and give credit for all UGC, but you make exceptions for material that’s of unusually high news value. In other words, you take an occasional legal risk in the interest of producing important journalism.

Describing UGC

How do you describe the UGC you’ve gathered when it makes it into your news report? Two approaches:

The detailed approach. When you use UGC in your report, go into as much detail as possible — in stories and captions — in describing exactly where the content or information came from and how it was verified. Because we’re using content created by others (who aren’t professionals), we need to be specific about why we’re using it.

The “info is info” approach. The theory here is that UGC doesn’t require any special level of detail — we should treat it like content or information gathered any other way. There might be exceptions — for example, if there’s anything about the content that seems suspicious or inaccurate — but in general, UGC seamlessly enters the newsgathering workflow.

Sensitivity and safety issues

Most journalists also assess UGC on the basis of how shocking or gruesome it is, and whether it poses a danger to the welfare of UGC contributors. Some considerations on the well-being of the citizen journalist — and those depicted in any UGC images:

Stay safe. When a journalist is communicating with a member of the public who’s in a dangerous place — such as the scene of a crime or disaster or a war zone — the journalist should urge the member of the public to stay safe. Non-professional journalists should never be asked to gather content in a dangerous place.

Sometimes, don’t even ask. News organizations need to consider when simply contacting a member of the public in search of UGC might put them in danger, because it might reveal their presence on the scene, or because the simple act of communicating might distract them from staying safe. Sometimes it’s best to wait until after the danger has passed.

Be sensitive. Be considerate about the citizen journalist’s emotional state. Remember that you might be telling someone alarming information for the first time when you reach out. And be particularly sensitive when communicating with members of the public who have just suffered a significant personal loss — and consider whether you should be reaching out for UGC at all in this situation.

Consider those in the image. What about the people who are depicted in UGC photos or video? In some cases — for example, where people were being mistreated, the exposure of their identity might put them in danger or they might not have known they were being recorded — special consideration should be taken to how they might be affected by the distribution of the content. Consider pursuing consent from these people before distributing the UGC. And if you can’t, it might be wise to crop the image or video to protect their identities. (Thanks to Madeleine Bair of WITNESS for the ideas behind this bullet point.)

The main author of this section is Eric Carvin, social media editor of The Associated Press. Carvin is an ONA board member, chairman of the ONA News Ethics committee and co-founder of an ONA working group examining standards and ethics issues related to social newsgathering.