The BBC’s User Generated Content (UGC) Hub does not further meaningful civil participation in the news, and the routine inclusion of UGC does not significantly alter news selection criteria or editorial values. So concludes Jackie Harrison’s study on audience contributions and gatekeeping practices at the BBC.
The study found many of the previous barriers to news selection have been removed or are not applicable to UGC.
“User generated content has been absorbed into BBC newsroom practices and is now routinely considered as an aspect of, or dimension to, many stories. In this sense the traditional barriers which formed the gatekeeping criteria of the 1990s have been altered forever.”
Harrison sees the changes to selection criteria as a real and worrying threat to quality and standards at the public broadcaster. Her study raises interesting questions about the value of UGC and how it should be measured. She fears the growing tendency to utilise audience content, often for convenience, risks an increase in “soft news” at the expense of quality journalism, and worse, the degradation of public knowledge.
Harrison does not see the hub as progressing civil debate or public engagement on a meaningful level, and she anticipates future use of UGC may grow more opportunistic. This is obviously at odds with the active debate and participation the hub set out to foster, and which has dominated previous ideals of audience participation.
Selection and moderation
In an earlier study, Harrison looked at what caused some stories to be used by the BBC and others to be rejected. Here she reinvestigates these reasons in the context of UGC, finding that in many cases UGC can, if not make these previous concerns irrelevant, make the case for automatic rejection less compelling.
While the hub is subject to resource-intensive moderation and methodical processes to ascertain UGC authenticity and quality it is, like all news organisations, still learning how to most effectively utilise audience participation.
There are growing and unresolved tensions for journalists in balancing the BBC’s traditional journalistic standards while fostering open communication, promoting free speech, and at the same time protecting the site and the audience against possible offence.
Inevitably, this gives rise to judgement calls which are necessarily subjective.
Harris suggests two questions then arise from this:
- Does UGC reflect public opinion and
- two, are they simply generating noise…of little value, and,
- is it a public service broadcaster’s job to provide a platform for all sorts of views including unpalatable or unpleasant ‘‘non-majoritarian’’ comment and, if it is not, why not?
BBC journalists told Harrison, “The difficulty with opening up the floodgates to participation is that ‘the full spectrum” of opinions must be considered to further the aims of the ‘global conversation’.”
Should we be concerned, as Harrison seems to be, that material gathered at the hub is not always deemed of particular quality? Or does the value, as Stuart Purvis suggests, lie in the telling, the fact that new and possibly previously unheard voices are given a platform?
We are right to expect quality content from the public broadcaster, but opinions on what that means differ widely.
This can be seen in the debate between Paul Bradshaw and his students, and the BBC staff regarding UGC content and external links. It seems while hub head Matthew Eltringham spoke about the relevance of content, what he was really talking about was quality content. If the BBC opened up linking to contributors’ sites, would it have to do it for all contributors, and what kinds of complications would this pose?
The future of UGC
Perhaps we should not be viewing the growing tendency for “soft journalism” through UGC as a degradation in quality, but part of the evolution of the BBC. Unless of course, it does come at the cost of investigative, serious journalism, which clearly the BBC has a mandate to invest in.
Harrison rightly points out the hub is only one part of the newsroom, but a part that is increasingly relied upon as an additional source of information, shared between departments at the BBC.
What the study doesn’t address is how successful the UGC hub has been in engaging people who have previously not interacted with the BBC, or who have not taken part in public debate in general. I suspect it is unlikely to have encouraged society’s voiceless. We must assume at the least, that people taking part have access to technology, which is of course, one of the major difficulties of the idea of the new electronic, egalitarian public sphere.
The hub does represent a deliberate and conscious effort to seek audience interaction and better serve the public interest, though what this will mean for the BBC, and for the public, in the long-term is still unclear.
It will be interesting to see how the hub develops and where UGC can go. Is Harrison right in predicting it will grow more meaningless or, more drastically, has meaningful civil engagement in the news already met its untimely death, as Steve Borris declared?