“User-generated content is here to stay”

26Jan07

The third speaker at the Citizenship Journalism Conference was Vicky Taylor, Head of Interactivity at the BBC, who introduced us to the way the BBC deals with and uses user-generated content.

 

Vicky Taylor, who likes to avoid the notion of talking about “Citizenship Journalism” as such, and prefers the more general definition of user-generated content, talked the audience through each of the nine categories in which the BBC group and use content provided by the public anywhere in the world.

 

The most prominent examples of these are surely the use of images and videos sent in by users, such as pictures of the underground in the 7/7 bombings  or footage from a contact filming the destruction created by Hurricane Katrina. Equally common are eye-witness reports by people either sending in up-to-date information about an event, or the BBC drawing upon a database of ten thousands of contacts around the world in order to get an eye-witness account from a certain area.

 

A relatively new aspect of the BBC’s work with user-generated content are panels, such as the “UK voters’ panel” that allows a random representative selection of the British public to publish their viewpoints on the election period. Vicky Taylor also emphasized the importance user emails and comments have on possible follow-up coverage, depending on whether a substantial amount of people have reported on a similar issue. The potential news story is then investigated and its claims checked against other sources related to the topic, as it was done in relation to the allegations made about the conditions of army accommodation with a “Have your say” section.

 

For the BBC, said Vicky Taylor, user-generated content is vital and a great opportunity to not only get immediate and live information from an eye-witness, but also to offer users the opportunity to share their stories and publish their points of view on news issues.

“User-generated content is here to stay”, she concludes, so news organisations and critics in the industry need to pay attention to this new interactivity in news making. On the other hand she points out that the use of user-generated content is “only enhancing investigative journalism” and the same journalistic standards need to be applied to checking UGC and producing news.

 

In a follow-up Q&A session, Vicky Taylor distanced herself from the idea of paying for user-generated content, limiting this to only exceptional images or videos of great value for the BBC image library, for example. In response to criticism about the supposed danger of lobbying as a result of giving a certain topic a platform if it is being mentioned in a substantial amount of user emails, she argues that a story is still being investigated towards all sides of the story and even lobbying is worth reporting about, if done so in an objective manner.

 

Apart from discussions around the authenticity of material in the workshop sessions following Vicky Taylor’s presentation, another controversy revolved around the value of news in relation to random, one participant, citizenship journalist accounts versus quality journalism and the importance of a news agenda that corresponds with an existing social reality outside user choice and prioritising.

 

Is it desirable to have total user control at the expense of controlling the news agenda, especially in web-related media, or is there an ethical aspect of the journalistic profession within organisations to push matters of concern forward to the public? Vicky Taylor believes that high-quality journalism will always be of value and people are just given the option to compare more broadly. Several participants agreed, saying that there would always be people whose aim it is to produce quality news, and people who want to read, see or hear that type of news.

 

Critical accounts of how the upsurge of using user-generated content could be linked to the emergence of 24/7 media, and stand for an ongoing demand to fill the news agenda with stories which makes the use of any user-generated content a necessity to keep viewers interested were discussed by workshop participants.

 

Despite these accusations of quantity over quality, Vicky Taylor argues that the 24/7 news media are merely a technological innovation that would exist with or without user-generated content and submissions were checked, verified, and only used if it was of particular interest.

 

“A good story still makes a good story”, she concludes, and adds that the increase of working with user-generated content is great to get to the grass-root sources, and hence a more democratic take on producing news.

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5 Responses to ““User-generated content is here to stay””

  1. I fear that the BBC will one day have a “Hutton moment” as a result of its use of UGC. Because of the volumes of contributions — 10,000 to 30,000 emails a day — material which is both inaccurate and damaging will slip through. When published the critics of the BBC will fall upon its neck, just as they did in the Hutton report.

    Hutton: the BBC lost its chair and the DG over one report early in the morning from a professional journalist which was later corrected.

    The fallout from a UGC incident would be enormous.

    I can see what’s in UGC for the BBC: it gets them to places the BBC cannot get to, it enriches stories, it makes the BBC more central to people’s lives.

    But the commercial world can provide all that the BBC is providing in terms of interactivity. And it does. Where is the public service element in it?

    I ask as a supporter of public service broadcasting who does not wish to see it damaged.

  2. 2 Nick Compton

    What really worries me about this discussion is the idea that UGC should dictate, or in some way, influence the news agenda. Surely this leaves open the possibility of organised ‘lobbying’ from particular interest groups. Even accepting that a neutral news agenda is a myth, the possibility of the BBC’s news agenda being steered in this way seems pretty terrifying.

  3. 3 Tony Chambers

    the irresponsible use of digital manipulation may also have serious implications. How can the BBC check the authenticity of photographs provided by the public?

  4. surely User Contributed Content will be important in the future with editors cutting out the online white noise of irrelevant and factually incorrect contributions? I’m all for the BBC requesting a dramatic increase to the licence fee as long as standards remain high, and those high standards will be all about the edit.

  5. 5 Andrew

    “Where is the public service element in it?”
    Perhaps the public service element is in providing the space itself, regardless of provisions by the commercial world.


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