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When it comes to standards and social media, discussion often centres on the standards put into practice by a news outlet to verify content before publishing it.

But as well as this, the Associated Press is also putting the spotlight on how it interacts with those sharing the content in the first place.

"The priorities for this year are to really firm up the ground that we started covering last year which is looking at standards," social media and user-generated content editor for international Fergus Bell told Journalism.co.uk.

In terms of the treatment of citizen journalists this covers safety and "ethical considerations for working with people who are in dangerous situations", he said.

Safety first

At the International Journalism Festival in Italy earlier this year, Bell's colleague Eric Carvin, social media editor at AP, addressed the need to prioritise safety.

"Our thoughts about this aren't new, we've been working on it for a while and we've tried to include a lot of what we've firmed up into guidelines," Bell said. In May the AP launched an updated set of social media guidelines, which included reference to the need for "a sensitive and thoughtful approach when using social networks to pursue information or user-generated content from people in dangerous situations or from those who have suffered a significant personal loss."

The guidelines add: "They should never ask members of the public to put themselves in danger, and in fact should remind them to stay safe when conditions are hazardous. Staffers should use their journalistic instincts to determine whether inquiring through social media is appropriate at all given the source’s difficult circumstances, and should consult with a manager in making this decision".

The release of the new guidelines was accompanied by a more detailed note on the subject to staff at AP, offering specific advice on how to act in certain circumstances, including not asking people to capture further content in dangerous situations.

By issuing the memo and new guidelines, Bell said it served to get what the team had already been aware of and discussing, "onto paper".

"We got there by an organic process," he said. "UGC is something that we've been working with for a while. 2009 was really the turning point for us with the Iranian elections.

"Because of the news cycles that we've seen over the last couple of years, a lot of that has focused on areas of conflict and accessing material from people who are on the ground in dangerous situations, in conflict situations.

"And that's thrown up a lot of questions for us and it's become a very sensitive topic that we need to approach because there are people who don't necessarily know the situation that they're in is dangerous."

He said journalists not on the ground can have a unique vantage point in comparison to those citizen journalists who are, and this awareness needs to be used to help ensure their safety.

"Because of our position in the newsroom, we get an overall sense of what's happening, but people on the ground don't necessarily know what is happening," Bell explained.

"We had some meetings with senior editors at AP and we decided that we needed to give clear guidance to our staff, who are still going through social media training, so that they knew exactly the best practices for dealing with this kind of content and these people."

When to make contact

One of the pieces of advice offered in the guidelines, which are published online, is that "sometimes it's okay to just act as an observer", Bell said.

"You don't necessarily need to jump in the moment that you see some material that you want to acquire. Sometimes it's enough to just look at what is going on, look at what someone is sharing, without interacting with them, because that interaction could put them in danger."

In cases where it is deemed safe enough to start to communicate, the guidelines say asking for permission to use content the source has already shared is acceptable.

"We don't feel like it's okay to ask them to capture more stuff for us in situations that are dangerous because that gives us a further sense of responsibility for them. We're already considering our responsibility for them when we're communicating with them and perhaps giving them exposure, if they're in a situation, but that's a very different thing compared to asking people to go and capture fresh content."

And during those conversations journalists are also advised to "remind those people to remain safe".

"That's not just us pulling a caveat every time we speak to them and hoping that they do it. If we see someone who is on a rooftop streaming and they are under fire, we say 'look, if you're going to continue streaming, please don't do it for our sake, it's not worth the risk. But if you're going to do it, at least we would recommend that you just leave the camera and go somewhere safe'."

Sticking with the example of citizen journalists streaming live, Bell said the AP will not use such content if they are able see the person's location.

"That might put them in danger," he said. "The thing that we're trying to communicate with these guidelines to our staff is that when you're looking at social media and you're looking at all of the tweets coming in and you're looking at all of the videos, you can build up this picture.

"But someone who is on the ground only has their eyes to rely on, you don't really know what's going on about you. You may not know that so many people are watching, looking at your content."

A similar example occurred during the shootings on the Utoya island in Norway, Bell said, with people on the island tweeting about their hiding place.

"That was probably one of the first times that I was aware that we needed to really think about this," Bell said, "because sharing that information in a live situation would have put them in danger."

Having this discussion with the social community

One useful exercise carried out by Bell and Carvin was to run an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, in which they held a discussion about UGC with the online community itself.

"Because we're an agency, we have very little contact with consumers of news, and we don't get to have an ongoing conversation with an audience," Bell said. "So what we really wanted to do was open up the debate and we thought Reddit was a good place to do that".

He added that when it came to the subject of accrediting UGC sources Bell was struck by the "completely wide-ranging opinion on how user-generated content is used by the news industry", and therefore it was useful to gather a better understanding of how the processes are understood from the outside.

"We're so focused on making sure that contributors are recognised and making sure that we always have permission, we didn't realise that people didn't know that was going on in the industry."

He added that while the exercise may not directly "affect the guidelines in the short term", it was important "to connect with these people who are the ones who are creating this content".

He added that the AMA "was the first part of that process of talking to citizen journalists and working out best practice".

"I'm not sure what the next thing is, but there will be more."

Industry-wide developments

Overall, Bell said he has noticed "these questions are coming up" more and more across the industry as UGC becomes an increasing feature.

"I think people are understanding that the people who are capturing this stuff in the right place at the right time are giving us something incredibly valuable," he said. "They are giving us the first images or first information from the scene and we need to work out how to respect those people."

One significant step has been wider crediting of UGC sources, he said.

"On-screen credits or caption credits are becoming much more common across the industry and I think that's a real sign that people are recognising that these people deserve that credit and they're not just someone randomly uploading a video or uploaded a photo necessarily."

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