Fergus Bell: How to work successfully with user generated content as a journalist

60 min

A hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute, 400 million tweets are posted daily. Many of those people posting to social networks are making – or breaking – news. Those that used to sit back and observe are now contributing directly to the journalism we produce every single day.
   Fergus Bell, Social Media and UGC Editor international at the AP writes about the important questions that need to be raised and discussed when working journalistic with material shared by the public, if you want to do this successfully.

This vast amount of information being thrown at us on multiple platforms and in many formats could simply mean chaos, for many it does. But for journalists hoping to tap into this infinite well of content we must know how to use it to separate fact from fiction and find the context we need to turn that video clip or tweet into a story.

Successfully working with UGC to find and produce great storytelling comes down to two important issues; verifying what we see and working very closely with those people who have been in the right place at the right time.
   We know how to find user-generated content now and we are getting pretty good at verifying it. This has been achieved by hard work and the development of tools that make chasing down an original post on social media easier and quicker. We know what to search for at specific times in the life of a story, we know what platforms and social networks to trawl through and we know how to download that content. But what about knowing the content is genuine?

The AP has distinguished itself by establishing strict, consistent standards for verification. Putting every story through this process isn’t easy and often it can be frustrating but ultimately it has allowed us to remain accurate when working with all forms of user-generated content. If something doesn’t make it through the process it doesn’t go out in an AP story. This process has led to trust from the audiences consuming AP content, we’re helping to bring context to that chaos.

It is essential that we work directly with those who create this content. They are giving us access to the story in ways that we can’t. They are the first person on the scene or someone who managed to capture something in a place where nobody thought to look. Collaboration could be a way forward with these content creators, finding ways to work with them in way that gives them the get the credit they deserve.
   Beyond crediting, identifying original sources of the content gets us closer to any story where user-generated content is a core component of coverage. We should ask them questions about what they witnessed and perhaps find out if they caught anything extra. We can also get to the story behind the pictures, allowing us to present a narrative behind those videos and photos that might suddenly be going viral.

If we work on our relationships with those observers-turned-reporters, the next time they capture something great they might want to share their story with us first.
   Beyond the chase for that story and the advantages that close collaboration brings there are some ethical considerations that we must address, especially when in the midst of that chaos. How do we handle contact with someone who is sharing content from a dangerous situation? How much guidance or direction do we give these individuals without influencing the way they capture events? If we can’t make contact with an individual can we use what they have filmed or photographed? Is breaking news ever a justification to adapt processes and procedures?

Working with the sheer volume of user-generated content that now comes our way is something that we are getting used to and these questions keep having to be asked. There are ways we might approach the points I’ve raised here - and at the AP we’ve been debating them for a while - but we don’t have all the answers yet. With every news event we refine the processes and procedures we use to verify content and collaborate with those creating journalism.

Fergus Bell
Social Media & UGC Editor International
at the Associated Press in London

On June 3rd Fergus Bell gave a workshop on this topic at Swedish Radio in Stockholm. Watch it or listen to it here: