#ONALondon ‘When news breaks bad: UGC in the newsroom’ session 

Panel: Mandy Jenkins, VP ONA board, head of news, Storyful; Fergus Bell, ONA Ethics committee, and Dig Deeper Media 

Ok, so for this blog post to make much sense you probably need to head straight to http://toolkit.journalists.org and have a look at that, because this is what we’re talking about.

Done that? Good – the roundup from the session starts… now:

In 2012 the first discussions around UGC and eyewitness protection began.

FB we didn’t have the luxury of several years to develop; we needed to come to a level of understanding quite quickly, and so we set up a working group and many conversations have ben held over theyears.

MJ: We are constantly dealing in a world of unknowns and what we have learned has meant we’ve started to figure out the day to day world of news.

The ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code is a document to gather the support of news and journalism organisations internationally to endorse a set of standards and practices.

Here’s a quick screen grab:

ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code – ONA s Digital ToolkitExample: ‘The Eiffel Tower has gone dark’ – many news organisations were posting on social in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that the tower was switched off out of respect. Actually, the lights are switched off every night.

Example: The video bandied around as being of the Brussels terror attack that turned out to be Moscow, 2011.

MJ: Readers and journalists are coming to standard terms that indicate where we are in a breaking news story. We will say ‘confirmed’ and how we know what we know, or ‘unconfirmed’ or ‘checking’ which says ‘we are looking into this right now’. The transparency is there and our audience can see what our status is with regards to verification of a story.

FB: For journalists, thinking of how we say we are reaching conclusions around stories is an alien concept but what we need to get our heads around is that the audience is now searching social media themselves, and if it doesn’t look as though you are going through a verification process as a professional journalist they may well question why.

Considering the emotional state and safety of contributors is about the way we deal with people who are creating content we need, and who we are using to tell stories.

FB used the example of a campus shooting eyewitness who was asked by hundreds, if not thousands, of media for her experiences – while it was still going on.

Journalists were getting abuse from other people who could see them asking for content.

Storyful approaches it like this:

 

FB: Be aware there is a difference between getting that story when someone is in fear of their life, and when they are safe. If you are communicating with someone who is hiding from a gunman, as in this case, what happens if their phone is not on mute and it makes a noise when they receive a notification?

Or if there is a particular geographic reference point or angle on a photograph that shows where they are?

MJ within your own newsroom there needs to be communication to say if someone has reached out to an eyewitness, so they are not getting bombarded.

Assignments v discovery – asking people to create content for you is different to finding content they have made. A snowy day photo shout out is low risk – a hurricane pic shout out is not.

MJ: during the Kenyan mall attack you could see people hiding while journalists reached out to them asking them to shoot video. These people were being asked to put their lives at risk to film for a news organisation. It was very ethically unsound.

Storyful works with content that exists and does not create assignment situations (i.e. asking for content to be created rather than provided post-creation)

FB: I worked with UGC on various uprisings in Libya and other areas and we would never ask them to capture anything that was live. What they captured informed the reporting rather than vice versa. We had a responsibility to their safety.

It is not only about protecting the source who provides the content but also protecting those who are featured in it – like making sure witnesses captured in a video are not identifiable.

Embedding can also be an area that needs negotiation: Sometimes people also don’t realise their content is public – they think it is contained within their network and don’t expect to see if in other media.

In breaking news if you are asking for permission to use something, do you have archive rights? Use beyond one time? Multi-platform? What if people later change their minds? If someone retracts at any point, if you’ve negotiated use on Twitter, you have to comply.  (This is a key point that newsrooms need to understand, as far as I am concerned)

If you throw a bunch of legalese at someone around usage, you aren’t likely to get anywHere.

By being more ethical you can also be more effective.

Keeping journalists safe online

MJ: I have had a member of staff stalked by someone they reached out to in pursuit of a story. We have to know that we are not supermen and superwomen when it comes to dealing with this.

FB: I know investigative journalists who will meet some potentially unsavoury contacts in public places with colleagues nearby. If you have a junior staffer reaching out through social to people, as newsroom managers do you know that staffer’s exit route? Do they know how to protect themselves?

Not everyone is bad out there of course but perhaps if you are able to speak to a source on the phone or company email rather than expose your personal account is useful in some cases.

*Also see the work by the excellent Eyewitness Media Hub. I’ve been some small involvement with this, and and blogged about it here and here.

The end of ‘behind closed doors’ journalism

There are times in a journalist’s career when you are going to have to approach someone who is not having the finest moment of their life, and ask them to help you.

It might be calling on a grieving family, or approaching witnesses to an accident, or asking someone who has just emerged the loser in a tussle with Justice to talk about How They Feel.

The outcomes are sometimes unedifying, occasionally unpleasant but – more often than the non-journalist might credit – can also be mutually successful and beneficial. These interactions were also largely unwitnessed, except by those participating.
They happened behind closed doors, or, more accurately, on doorsteps – whether you got inside said door or not hinged, no pun intended, on how you conducted yourself, and represented your intentions.

I called it the Black Edged Voice and it would be employed for death knocks (low, respectful tone, apologetic demeanour for intruding, much stressing of the fact that I would leave  if the door-answerer wished, and would not return) and I was more often than not invited in.

I would interview the person or family; I would do my utmost to do justice to their dear one with a tribute. My goal was to give them a cutting that they would come to regard as a mini-memorial. Every newsroom had reporters who were ‘good on the knock’ – I suspect it comes down to empathy… and luck.

Things started to change in… I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2008, because that was when the first pebbles of social media sliding down a slope became a rumbling avalanche. In 2009 this happened, which gave me a personal insight into how my old-school ‘contacts’  had become my (much-wider) network and a plane crashed in the Hudson and (most) mainstream media suddenly got what was going on.

Now, when a news break happens, you can bank on Twitter being at the heart of it in some way, and often that’s because it’s where the witnesses are. If I’m passing a huge traffic snarl-up on the M6 my instinct is to photograph or video it and post it on Twitter with a hashtag (from the passenger seat, officer, of course) – my natural instinct is to share. And it’s a common mindset; whether you’re wondering what the noises overhead are, or seeing the Clutha tragedy unfold sharing the experience on networks is now a common thing.

But as a witness, or someone who acknowledges a connection to someone caught up in a newsworthy event, when you share that on Twitter you invite reaction, and a side effect of that is that the massed ranks of media are likely going to be in your @ mentions within minutes, asking for a) your content or b) an interview or c) probably both. For a journalist, it means these interactions are happening in the world; they aren’t behind closed doors or in a one-to-one exchange on a doorstep – you’re asking your questions on Twitter and onlookers may well view them as intrusive.

It’s not necessarily pretty but that’s beside the point – asking the questions, respectfully, within the Editors’ Code of Conduct, and knowing that varieties of “NO” may be the comeback are part of the job. There are two problems: Dozens of other media may well be @-ing the same “can we [use your photo, speak to you, ask you to put us i touch with X]?”; others witnessing the Twitter scrum get outraged (sometimes with good reason) and start throwing abuse back. This will usually include references to vultures, lazy journalism, disgrace etc etc.

This week’s Smiler crash saw a spate of no-closed-doors journalism approaches. Mercifully no one died, although the terrible injuries (I would imagine mental as well as physical) suffered by those caught up in it meant it was an incredibly sensitive story to stage a “can we have…” media grabfest on Twitter. This is pretty typical of what went on:

and this

Followed by

There are scores of these exchanges – I imagine her mentions column was in meltdown. She obviously was sanguine about the journalists who approached her (although if you read the full exchanges, it shifts from journalists asking for interviews to some fairly nasty tweets from non-media, taking her to task for the original tweet). But there are also variations on a theme of this

And it wasn’t unique – other people tweeting photos were getting similar requests, and similar views were being expressed

Is it fair? No. Do they have a point? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Sorry but I don’t care. Publicly requesting content like this is a legitimate part of the journalist’s job, while taking photos without asking is obviously not; and yes, it can look shoddy to the wider world. That’s ok – most of us don’t come into this job to win an award for our high-minded purpose and nobility, we come into it to tell stories and let people know things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If someone wants to tell a journalist their story because said hack asked the right questions, politely, mindfully and within the Code of Conduct, that’s a valid exchange. When it fails is when the question is posed in a crass way, or we barge into exchanges between friends, because we had a Tweetdeck search running.

The above tweeter posted her content and opinion to broadcast it – she was happy for journalists to amplify the message. But an enormous amount of Twitter users don’t understand the network, or think that when they @ a friend, it’s not public. Leaping into what they think is a private exchange is a bit like opening the front door and walking in the room to ask if you can interview the grieving family, without knocking.

Just observe for a few moments and follow the conversation – you’ll soon work out whether it’s something you can step into (or another journalist will jump first, and you can take a cue from the reaction). Being first isn’t a great thing when all you’ve achieved is a mentions column of abuse, and retweets with added angry comments. It damages you, the brand you work for, and the wider journalism community.

When you’re using Twitter to find witnesses, treat it like a door knock. Sometimes, in real life, the journalism pack gets there first and you can ask them what reception they’ve got so far. On Twitter, a couple of minutes of observing conversations, or watching others rush in to the breach, can be very valuable. Knock at the metaphorical door if you think it’s appropriate, and be prepared to have it shut in your face – or to have someone else tell you to clear out.

But if you aren’t respectful, or you don’t conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on you and the title you represent (quick sense check: How would you react if you were the person you’re about to approach?) you can expect to get flung off the metaphorical doorstep and land in a heap.

Update: Here’s a link to Robin Hamman’s post on the VirginiaTech shooting – it’s not a new phenomenon.