The ethics of using user-generated content

While social media platforms have vastly increased the speed by which a reader can submit content, an ONA ethics panel agreed that traditional verification of sources is more important than ever.

During a panel of the Ethics the Community Newsroom, Jennifer Preston of the New York Times pointed out that her paper has been publishing user-generated content for centuries – in the form of letters to the editor from readers.

User-generated content (UGC) is not new, but the need for verification is more important than ever before, Preston said.

Fergus Bell, Senior Producer and Digital Newsgatherer for the Associated Press in London said that when he finds content he’d like to put out on the AP wire, he has a system of sourcing and verification that includes:

  • Find the earliest example
  • Check the source’s history
  • Ask the source about the information/image
  • Verify the source
  • Secure permission for the AP to use it
  • Compare the content (with other images that might date it)
  • Verify the content

Here’s how it looked:

Bell said when crowd sourcing material from conflict areas such as Syria, the AP makes sure that the source understands how their material is going to be used, and the reach of the Associated Press.

What about telling them it’s dangerous? An audience member asked Bell.

“We can only tell them to be safe, but we can’t and shouldn’t tell them to stop. I think we have to make sure they understand the risks,” Bell said.

All members of the panel said verification was extremely necessary in places like Syria, where the news organizations don’t have any reporters on the ground and have to trust dispatches (Preston called them ‘shares’) on social media.

“What I’ve learned is most important is that if you can’t verify it, it’s not a story,” she said.

While it seems a lengthy process, Preston showed an American example that proved these steps are necessary.

She pointed to the story of a Feb. 2012 shooting in Chardon, Ohio, when a student entered the school cafeteria and shot six students. Three students were killed, a fourth was paralyzed.

T.J. Lane was identified as the alleged shooter soon after the incident.  In lightning response, this image was pulled from a Facebook page and many news organizations posted this as an image of Lane. (Indeed a google search for ‘T.J. Lane’ still retrieves this photo):

It turned out, this wasn’t Lane.

Here’s an Associated Press photo of T.J. Lane as he appeared in court in September:

Treating Communities right

Amanda Michel, Open Editor at the Guardian’s New York office, said the flipside for news organizations wanting to get it right is they have to treat their communities right.

Michel pointed out that 1/3 of The Guardian’s 72-million readers are in the U.S., a fact the news organization doesn’t take lightly.

She outlined some important steps that go a long way to building a relationship with a community:

  • Reject submissions quickly. If you set up a callout for information, don’t push it aside and say you’ll deal with it in the future. “Not getting any feedback is one of the simplest and most effective ways to turn someone off,” she said. “With a rejection, you are thanking a reader for their contribution and time, and giving feedback that it was the submission that didn’t suffice.”
  •  Go back. Go back and look at the comments on some of your biggest stories. When the Guardian wanted to do an interactive on the anniversary of occupy, it used the comments on its stories when they were posted to embed within it. Then when the interactive was posted, the Guardian contacted all the commenters via email to the commenters to tell them they were a part of it. “The simplest way to show readers their contributions on our site have a lasting effect is to thank them.”
  • Take comments seriously. Don’t just allow readers to comment on a story and leave them. It’s difficult to support and build a commenting community without taking part in discussion. “We have turned beyond our networks looking for communities without realizing we already have a community of commenters on our site.”
  •  Test the assignment before you send it out. Seems so simple really, but test the assignment and its effectiveness (and the technology). Try to do it yourself.

Preston pointed out that the New York Times also takes comments seriously – it has a staff that has invested a lot of time with comments, moderating and identifying trusted members of the community who don’t have to be moderated as other commenters on the site.

Post image courtesy of Flickr user Hannes Treichl

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