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UGC in News @Prix Italia

The team

The team

On 21 September 2015 I had been invited to participate in the session entitled “News and User-Generated Content” at Prix Italia 2015. Together with other experts we talked about the impact of eyewitness media / UGC on the news business, what has changed in the past, and how to deal with respective challenges now and in the future. This post provides a snapshot of the session, including links to further resources.

The session ” News and User-Generated Content” covered various aspects of relevance when it comes to dealing with social media in news. It focussed on aspects of sourcing content from social networks, e.g. as part of the newsgathering process; dealt with the important aspect of verification; raised legal issues surrounding the matter (e.g. what can be distributed how, and what better be left untouched); gave practical advice and – hopefully – triggered off further debates and reflections on the topic.

Expert moderators

Two topical experts moderated the discussions: Jenni Sargent of Eyewitness Media Hub and Tom Trewinnard of Meedan. In addition to ensuring a smooth running of individual presentations and discussions among participants and with the audience, the moderators also brought their know-how and expertise into the debate.

Tom Trewinnard & Jenni Sargent

Tom Trewinnard & Jenni Sargent

Jenni’s contributions focussed primarily on ethical aspects, how to deal with source crediting and issues relating to vicarious trauma (for more information on these important issues see also the publications of Eyewitness Media Hub. If you are a journalist dealing with graphic material and its effects, EMHub would very much appreciate your participation in their study on vicarious trauma).

Tom, in turn, in addition to his moderation tasks pointed to ways of collaborative verification, as done by the likes of Eliot Higgins and the team at Bellingcat – partly with the help of Meedan’s Checkdesk.

Tools and tips

After an introduction by Jenni, Malachy Browne, managing editor and Europe anchor at Reportedly, kicked off with the first presentation in which he pointed to numerous resources that can be used for the sourcing of information from social media as part of the newsgathering process. He also gave lots of valuable expert advice on how to deal with this abundance of sources, and which tools can aid in sourcing and verifying user-generated content.

Some of the tools and platforms used by Malachy and the team at Reportedly can be found in Malachy’s tweets of the day (21 September, especially those numbered from 1 to 11). Also of great value: the resources made available and shared freely on First Look Media – check out for example Malachy’s pocket guide to video verification and many more useful tips by Reportedly and Malachy himself

Journalistic methods and principles

Dhruti Shah, journalist at the BBC’s User Generated Content and Social Media Hub, pointed out that many “old” journalistic core values and techniques still apply – and the advance of social media has not fundamentally changed the principles of journalistic work. This includes asking the famous “W” questions: Who, What, Where, When and Why.

Anne-Marie Lupu, Dhruti Shah & Malachy Brown

Anne-Marie Lupu, Dhruti Shah & Malachy Browne

An excellent tool to get closer to the truth for this matter is the good old telephone: talking to a source directly can reveal so much, Dhruti pointed out. By engaging in conversation with a supposed eyewitness directly, a trained journalist can often very quickly tell whether his or her counterpart really did witness an occurrence – or is simply making up a story: in other words is lying.


Not surprisingly, traditional journalistic skills and experience also matter when it comes to dealing with social media content. It’s just that the tools and methods that can be used to access those sources – respectively content – have changed profoundly with the advancement of digitization. Journalists have to learn how to use them to their advantage!

Trusted networks

Julien Pain, editor at France 24‘s Les Observateurs, gave many practical tips and outlined how he and his team deal with UGC and respective contributors at Les Observateurs. The strategy there, according to Julien, is to build up a “trusted network of contributors”, namely the Observers.

To become an Observer, prospective candidates have to go through some form of “vetting process” in which contact details, location and other information is gathered and stored in a database. This way, France 24 can quickly draw on first hand accounts of trusted sources with whom a relationship exists already, instead of always starting afresh searching for reliable contributors when something happens in various locations of the world.

Julien Pain presenting

Julien Pain presenting

Asked whether France 24 pays their contributors, Julien responded that, generally speaking, no payments are made for contributions. However, there is one exception: when France 24 specifically asks an Observer to check on a particular aspect of a story and this involves efforts on the contributor’s side that is triggered or requested by France 24 (e.g. the newsroom asking someone to go somewhere to cross-check on a particular story or item), then financial compensation is offered.

Also of interest: France 24 tries hard to maintain close relationships with their Observers. For example, this involves trying to meet up in person when a France 24 journalist is in a region in which an Observer lives.

Focus on verification

In my own presentation, I focussed on the importance of verification of social media content in the newsgathering process. I stressed the importance of “getting it right” (also referring to the “5 Ws”) and pointed out that, in my view, this should be of higher priority than being first. Primarily because we, at least those of us working for public service broadcasters, are in “the trust business”, which is (or should be) based on reputation and reliability. That is why getting it wrong once, as numerous examples have shown, can have a bigger impact than getting it right hundreds of times.

Myself presenting. Image by Malachy Browne

Myself presenting. Image by Malachy Browne

Additionally, getting things wrong also has the potential to damage a news provider’s brand. While mistakes cannot be avoided completely, everything should be done to keep them to a minimum, and learn openly from errors if they occur.

I furthermore stressed that training initiatives and getting journalists accustomed to verification techniques and tools needs to be provided by media organisations. That includes providing environments in which journalists can best perform verification tasks (including banal aspects such as not restricting third party tool access because of internal firewalls and IT policies, and much more).

Collaborative debunking

“The more, the better – ideally collaboratively.” This sums up an initiative that was referred to and is co-led by Anne-Marie Lupu, TV news editor at Eurovision / EBU.

Currently, the EBU is in the process of setting up and running an international verification network. Its aim is to pool resources and skills and work collaboratively on verification tasks, and share subsequent results. At present, participants mainly work for European public service broadcasters, but the initiative is also open to others who share similar values and aims.

If you want to find out more and feel your organisation can contribute to the initiative’s aims, feel free to get in touch with Anne-Marie.

Legal issues

Of course, a session dealing with the use of content residing in social networks, and using UGC for news reporting can not do without raising legal implications. This part was covered primarily by Adam Rendle, lawyer at Taylor Wessing, who gave much useful advice on the matter.

Irina Stoilova & Adam Rendle

Irina Stoilova & Adam Rendle

Central to his statements were copyright issues on the one hand, and privacy concerns on the other hand. A simple message: these should be respected! In order to do so, journalists first need to know what legal rules apply. The fact that someone has published and shared content on a social network does not mean at all that it has been “given away”, free for all to use in whatever context and for whatever purpose.

In order to be on the safe side, journalists need to be aware of what is possible and what is not, including possible consequences. Media organisations, for their part, need to produce respective guidelines and provide trainings. Ignoring the value of social media content is no solution, but using material from social networks as if no rules and rights apply is no way forward either.

For those interested in further information on legal aspects of UGC usage, Taylor Wessing have put together some useful guidelines. See for example their practical guidelines for dealing with UGC in news reporting. Also of interest: the things one should know about social networks’ terms of use.

Famous last words

A packed room

A packed room

These are just a few takeaways from a long and very illuminating 2.5 hr session in Turin at Prix Italia. We covered far more than is reported above, such as the need to protect sources and do everything to care for their safety – which should be of overriding concern when dealing with eyewitnesses.

Judging by the packed conference room and the positive feedback received afterwards, it seems like the session was a big success and raised aspects that provided food for further thoughts as well as useful tips and advice when dealing with social media in the news context.

Personal words of thanks

Team spirit

Team spirit

A final note of appreciation: a BIG thank you goes to Irina Stoilova of RAI who was the logistic and organisational mastermind behind this session. She did a fantastic job, taking care of everything.

Thanks a lot also to everyone else who made this possible and participated in whatever form: those involved in organisational matters; the panel members and moderators; the EC co-funded research & development project REVEAL that deals with all sorts of verification issues and allowed me to get deeper into the topic of verification; and Deutsche Welle’s Innovation Projects unit in which I happily spend most of my working time.

Other resources and reports about the event

Journalists Andrej Cebokli (RTV Slovenia) and Marina Strauss (Deutsche Welle Germany), who participated in the EBU’s SkillsXchange at Prix Italia 2015 conducted an interview with myself and Dhruti. We talked about various aspects of sourcing and verifying information residing in social networks. The respective article can be found here, while you can view an edited version of the interview by clicking on the image below.

Dhruti also put together a selection of tweets about our session which can be found here.

If you want to look up more tweets about the event and what was said, you may want to do so by searching for the hashtag #PrixUGC on Twitter.

There’s also an interview I gave to Italian broadcaster RAI after the event – somewhere. The responsible journalist told me it was to be included in some of RAI’s TV output in the coming weeks. Any clues as to where it can be found are much appreciated.

More resources

When dealing with the verification of eyewitness media, an excellent destination to turn to is the web presence of the First Draft News coalition. The aim of the site and coalition is to bring together resources in one central repository. Contributions range from expert interviews to tool tips, from practical advice to the formulation of guidelines, and much more.

As I have written about the topic of verification before, I’d also like to point to my collection of verification resources elsewhere on this blog.


Photo credits: all images by Jochen Spangenberg, unless stated otherwise




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