FAQ: Is UGC more helpful or harmful to journalism?

The latest set of questions in the semi-regular FAQ section on this blog are about UGC, and come from a student at Liverpool John Moores. Here they are…

Is UGC more helpful or harmful to journalism?

Helpful, of course! Journalism has always relied on information and media (photos, video, audio) from readers/the audience and sources. The difference is that we now have access to a much larger amount of that information.

This represents a challenge, but the only way you might see it is as ‘harmful’ is if you assumed journalists would be publishing information without checking it first. Surely journalists wouldn’t do that..?

One of the problems with the term ‘UGC’ is it masks a wide range of types of content and sources. UGC might be information from a stranger, or from a known source, or from a celebrity or public figure. It might be text or images or video or audio. When the term is so broad it’s difficult to say anything definitive about it.

How trustworthy is the verification of UGC?

That depends on the person verifying it, and the information being verified. Really what you are asking is ‘How trustworthy is the verification of information?

The more clues we have about a piece of information, the easier it is to verify it. Images are useful because the metadata, for example, can help establish things like the device used to take it and the location (which can in turn be compared with claims by the source and other information like the weather in that place and time).

The history of an account can give us clues as to its credibility (was it set up recently? Does it have connections with real people, or lots of bots? What does it post about?)

I could go on and on – there are lots of techniques.

When I hear someone worrying about UGC what they are invariably really worrying about are the standards of the journalists relying on it.

Does UGC put more pressure on journalists to develop more skills such as filming and editing?

No, I think in some ways it can lead to journalists becoming more desk-bound as they don’t have to go out to get some footage.

What does put pressure on journalists to develop skills such as filming is the transformation of newspaper and radio organisations into digital-first operations (which need video), and the growth of online video as a source of advertising revenue in publishing.

UGC of course also provides more leads that the journalist can follow to get that video — or more reasons why they might need to do so.

More recently there’s been a further expansion into social-first publishing which means journalists have to produce video for social platforms, so there’s that as well. I guess you could argue that UGC has forced journalists to be more competitive about the quality of the content that they put on the same platforms, but it’s also other journalists upping their game on social too.

How do you feel about CNNs iReport project?

I’m amazed it’s still going, I think it’s from an earlier age – when journalists had the ego to think people wanted to be ‘citizen journalists’. In reality it turned out that most people had no particular reason to want to share their images with news organisations – they just wanted to share them directly with each other (with the exception of weather stories).

For that reason it’s had to reinvent itself as, essentially, a form of curation – in that sense it partly reflects the shift away from the news-centric approach that characterised attitudes to UGC before, and towards an acknowledgement that social platforms have served users much better in that respect than any news organisation.

But I also think iReport has highlighted CNN’s lack of community. If you are going to have a genuine UGC project then I feel you need to have a community and purpose which overrides the function of major social networks. It’s been interesting to watch The Guardian adapt in that direction with their UGC project Witness.

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