News & Analysis 9580068088_2fcd61419e_b

Published on October 17th, 2013 | by EJC


Audience Engagement: Important For Better Crowdsourcing?

The general public, armed with a smartphone or pocket-size camera, plays an increasing role in evolving stories. User generated content (UGC) is used by many news outlets as an everyday part of the news agency’s newsgathering activities. However, there are downsides as well. How should news outlets deal with UGC?

When big news breaks, most news organisations automatically monitor what people are posting on Twitter or Facebook – they all know that with global smartphone sales still rising, there will always be someone at the scene quicker than the reporter to take the first picture.

There are countless examples of stories where UGC was an essential part of the coverage: the aftermath of the Boston bombings, Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, the Capitol shooting and the Arab revolution. UGC-videos were coming through during and after the news broke, constantly evolving the story.

For AP, UGC-sourced and verified content has become an everyday part of the news agency’s newsgathering. To strengthen its capability in gathering UGC- video news, the press agency recently purchased a minority stake in Bambuser, the video service that allows eyewitnesses to broadcast, watch and share live video through mobile.

“Citizen journalists are giving us the first images or first information from the scene”, Fergus Bell, social media and UGC-editor at AP told “People that are capturing this stuff in the right place at the right time are giving us something incredibly valuable.”

In order to ensures the ‘robustness of the news output’, AP lately applied the same strict editorial standards for UGC as to its own newsgathering.

Often, readers’ submissions may even break the story. Managing editor at Storify, Markham Nolan, mentions in an interview with the U.S. elections: “A lot of the most interesting material from the campaign trail was captured after network cameras were switched off.”

Curation and Verification
#wjchat recently organised a twitter-discussion about UGC and audience engagement. Journalists participating in the online discussion all agreed upon the fact that UGC brings in valuable content, increases audience engagement and creates a community for which readers will return for.

However, there are pitfalls too.

Many well established news organisations receive loads of emails with UGC-videos and other user content. Editors often feel that for the most, it’s ‘a lot of noise’. As such, trained journalists are very much needed to curate, contextualize, filter content and analyse its meaning for a story.

The most common pitfall of using UCG-content is verification. A video or picture often isn’t contextualised enough for a journalist to decide whether something is what it is claimed to be. Ways to verify content include contacting the people who uploaded it or cross-checking landmarks that appear in videos with Google maps. What still remains difficult is checking when it had been recorded.

Furthermore, users need clear guidelines for what to send in and what not.  “The worst pitfall is to treat UGC as free content, a fire hose, something you can control or do with no specific plan”, says journalist Saleem Khan in the #wjchat. “It’s like a football game”, says Christopher Ryan in the same discussion, “you need a balanced play book for users.”


Beyond Breaking News
Media that are not necessarily focused on hard news also invest in UGC. Human interest stories, daily features such as ‘pet of the day’ and investigative stories are all good candidates for user submissions. And for that, a thoughtful community around an outlet is extremely important.

At ProPublica, a corporation that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, journalists invest in the relationship with the reader and actively look for audiences’ input for stories. It recently launched the page ‘Get Involved‘, a zone that offers a variety of ways for readers to share tips and stories.

“Our relationship with the readers is of high quality: people tweet or email to thank us for the work we are doing or to offer us their time and energy”, tells Pro Publica’s senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora Nieman Journalism Lab. “Journalists have the opportunity to translate that good will of our readers into something really tangible and journalistic.”

ProPublica searches online on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for groups that talk about the same topics to encourage UGC-input.

As with Breaking News stories, users need direction. Zamora: “We ask them: Has it been told before? What’s the accountability angle? Who’s suffering? — we’re going to ask people to think about these factors when they’re posting their ideas.”

Lastly, for some outlets, UGC and social media actually are the only ways to cover stories.  Like BBC Persian. “All staff are banned and authorities block its website, but the channel can engage with its audience through social media”, BBC Persians web editor Sina Motalebi explains at the Social Media Summit in New York last April.

Another example is the project Les Observateurs by France 24: a show that solely uses material from its network of viewers, correspondents and contributors worldwide. It focuses on the regions in the world that are less covered such as Congo and therefore, it is not easy to get UGC.  And apparently, is has become the most watched program on the channel.


About the Author:
Gemma van der Kamp is a journalist and anthropologist. She currently works as a freelance journalist, partly for the Dutch broadcaster RTL News. Gemmaholds a Master Degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam and a MA in International Journalism from City University London. Her anthropological field research and development work led her to live for short periods in India and Sri Lanka. She aspires to combine her career in journalism with media development. Follow her on Twitter or e-mail her.
Photo: whatmattdoes

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