Though user-generated content (UGC) is now a standard part of the journalist’s newsgathering toolbox, the ready availability and proliferation of such content—and our bottomless appetite for breaking news—introduces a familiar ethical dynamic in the modern newsroom. However, rather than inhibiting the journalistic project, these evolving ethics of social newsgathering may also empower the voice of the raucous court of public opinion, which has historically kept the press in check.
The increased proliferation of UGC in news media is a byproduct of our culture’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with social media. The best social media platforms allow for a customized newsfeed that effectively blends current events with status updates, food pictures, and smarm. In other words, our ubiquitous newsfeed is a digital age, individualized evolution of the broadsheet. Although within these feeds there is enough context to distinguish a CNN headline on Syrian refugees from pictures of your aunt’s vacation to Denver, the fact that these two messages—one ‘newsworthy’ and one social—share the same visual real estate belies an emerging precedent and expectation for UGC and news media: The news must be relatable, relevant, and—most importantly—it needs to come from someone like us, not them.
This much is confirmed by the Online News Association (ONA), which last year was the first group to formally engage with the ethics of this new paradigm in the two-part article, “Social newsgathering: Charting an ethical course.” Regarding newsgathering, the authors write, “You’d better leave lots of room for social tools, given the powerful role social newsgathering now plays in discovering important information and content, especially when news breaks where there isn’t a professional journalist in sight.” On one hand—depending on who you talk to—the increasingly powerful role of social newsgathering has put professional journalists in a precarious position (just ask anyone who used to work for the Chicago Sun-Times). But on the other hand, UGC allows us to see, hear and learn things we might have otherwise only gathered through hearsay back in the days of print. There are certainly rightful grounds for the news utility of UGC (and the corresponding reduction of overhead a la the Sun-Times).
For its first look at the ethics of social newsgathering, Eric Carvin and Fergus Bell of the ONA—both social media editors at The Associated Press—formed a social newsgathering working group who cooperatively identified the five key ethical challenges of social and digital newsgathering. These challenges include verification and accuracy, contributor safety, rights and legal issues, social journalist wellbeing, and the less obvious issues of workflow and resources (i.e. “How does a newsroom with tight resources develop the expertise to make strong ethical decisions about social newsgathering?”). While these are worthwhile exercises, in many ways they simply restate the ethical challenges faced by journalism since the dawn of free press: Can these facts be verified? Will someone be put in harm’s way if this information is shared? Are we breaking any laws? How do we know if what we’re doing is the right thing?
These and other ethical questions are, of course, essential for good journalism. But what these conversations leave out is that, despite the nobility of such ethical pontification, they take place under the umbrella of commerce that is at once amoral and discriminating. You can’t run a profitable paper without selling a few ads. And isn’t that the whole reason ‘news’ exists, anyway—to make money? Idealists say no, but without the news media industry, there would be no news—and without financing, there would be no news media. But the nature of UGC and the tendency of the digital age to subvert once privileged news access undermines the business precedents—and associated ethical contexts—of traditional news media. It’s a double-edged sword.
One recent corrective on UGC and the ‘business’ of news comes again from Fergus Bell who, in a keynote address at the news:rewired 'in focus' conference this past October, said: “There are ways to be competitive and ethical at the same time. I think that it requires the industry to work together. There are certain standards that we can come to – just because this is new, it doesn’t mean that we can’t get together and talk about it.” As Alli Shultes reports at Journalism.co.uk, the focus of the conversation on UGC and journalism should be sustainability. For Shultes, this means “building confidence so that newsrooms and journalists continue to be trusted to handle UGC in an ethical and professional manner.” But it also means sustaining business, audiences and reliable reportage, which is the essential product of the news media industry. On a basic level, Bell has a method for fostering this sustainability via UGC:
- 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
Because UGC is now a journalistic standard, and because the presentation of this standard is both received and combined with our personalized, microcosmic social news, Bell’s ethical methodology has value for journalists and newsrooms as well as for the users themselves. The ubiquity of UGC means that users are now more explicitly contributing to the news generation and collection process, whether we know it or not. A haphazard tweet or Instagram can be front-page news, despite the generally self-serving intentions dominating our online lives. In this way, there is at least a baseline moral incentive for users to be aware of the ethical dynamics of newsgathering, especially as the lines between laity and industry continue to blur.
At one time, the hard line between the public and the press—while perhaps more beneficial to business—nonetheless gave the public a certain power over the press. If we don’t like what you’re printing, we’re not going to buy it. And if we really hate it, we will boycott it or do everything we can to put you out of business. A democratic system that values free speech grants sway to the majority; this is the Court of Public Opinion. And as the digital conversation of social media has empowered the voice of the laity, it has likewise changed the dynamics of this Court. The UGC that is changing the dynamics and ethics of newsgathering and journalism is (or can be) the same content that serves to hold the press accountable. And in situations where the press is state controlled, social media as UGC even has the capability of inspiring revolution (as in Egypt in 2011).
With UGC now a newsroom standard, it’s important to update the ethics of newsgathering and journalism. By that same token, it’s perhaps even more important to understand the commercial context from where these ethics emerge. For UGC has not only transformed the new gathering process but also the industry, which has historically commanded the mechanisms of this process. In this new milieu there emerges a responsibility that both journalists and ‘users’ would do well to apply. It makes for better news, reliable content, and—even though we hate to say it—a better bottom line.