Over the weekend the BBC had to deal with the embarrassing ignorance of someone in their complaints department who appeared to believe that images shared on Twitter were “public domain” and “therefore … not subject to the same copyright laws” as material outside social networks.
A blog post, from online communities adviser Andy Mabbett, gathered thousands of pageviews in a matter of hours before the BBC’s Social Media Editor Chris Hamilton quickly responded:
“We make every effort to contact people, as copyright holders, who’ve taken photos we want to use in our coverage.
“In exceptional situations, ie a major news story, where there is a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience, we may seek clearance after we’ve first used it.”
(Chris also published a blog post yesterday expanding on some of the issues, the comments on which are also worth reading)
The copyright issue – and the existence of a member of BBC staff who hadn’t read the Corporation’s own guidelines on the matter – was a distraction. What really rumbled through the 170+ comments – and indeed Andy’s original complaint – was the issue of attribution.
Why is it that news organisations still attribute images and video to the platforms they were hosted on?
The BBC – thanks to the UGC hub that Chris heads up – are actually better than most news organisations on this front. Channel 4 News can be seen broadcasting footage captioned “Video from YouTube”; newspapers and magazines will similarly occasionally credit images as being “from” Twitter or Facebook (or link to a research journal’s homepage rather than the research paper being reported on, as one commenter pointed out).
It already seems like a statement from a bygone era. Tom Morris, for example, argued:
“When someone calls you Crimewatch, you don’t thank BT or Vodafone or T-Mobile: not seeing the human at the end of the line, that’s the damn problem.”
Of course, the comment overlooks one of the characteristics of digital media: the ease of replication. Quite often an image or video will reach us through a dozen intermediaries: publishing and distribution overlap.
Coupled with the time pressures of newsrooms, this can lead journalists to use media without knowing their true authorship.
And there’s the problem.
While we may occasionally think that some stories are too important to waste time tracking down the copyright owner of images, the importance of identifying the provenance of those images – and of giving the viewer the critical context to make a judgement on it – are not trivial matters.
Just as we expect journalists to have a very good reason to use quotes without attribution, the same should apply to images and video.
Social networks can make attribution easier: during the Chinese earthquake, for example, I could trace the source of a tweet relatively easily. And there are a variety of other tools and techniques for tracing information online. The BBC, again, is actually very good at this.
But even when the source cannot be traced – and we are confident of the material’s validity – we need a better way of describing the source of that material, or the point at which the journalist came across the material: “Photo published on Twitter by Janet Jones”; “Video republished by youtube.com/anaconda” or even “attribution being sought”.
(Given that we are often publishing cross-platform a similar option may be to have a page which provides further information about the provenance of UGC material used on-air and in print, a sort of iReport in reverse)
A failure to do so betrays not just a lack of respect for the users of social media who created that media or brought it to our attention, but a lack of care in the process of journalism itself.