Credit: Thinkstock

Smartphones and social media have blown the world open to news organisations like never before – anyone, anywhere could be the source of a story at any time.

But with such opportunities come new problems and questions.

The now infamous 'Syrian Hero Boy' video – of a young boy supposedly being shot while saving a girl – was shared widely on social media before being identified as fake.

In the immediate wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, eyewitnesses posted imagery online before some removed the footage in guilt. They were physically "hounded" and hunted down by reporters looking to use the pictures, according to Fergus Bell, head of newsroom partnerships and innovation at SAM Desk and co-founder of the Online News Assoiation UGC Ethics Initiative, chairing a panel on the issues at this year's International Journalism Festival.

These are two extreme examples of growing concerns around the use of newsworthy content from social media, and Bell's panel sought to address where the phenomenon should be heading.

Verify, verify, verify

As founder and director of innovation at Storyful, Mark Little has been a pioneer of social media verification. His business – bought by News Corp at the end of 2013 – is built on the verification process.

"We start with forensic journalism," he said, "it then goes to technology, and then collaboration."

There are people who think if we get it up early and put up 'allegedly' or 'rumoured' around it to flag it then that's good enoughCraig Silverman, Emergent.Info
Forensic journalism starts with asking 'is it too good to be true', a standard for a true cynics at the start of any story. Beyond that, questions should be based around "elements that we need to corroborate or to clarify", Little said, many of which are covered extensively in The Verification Handbook.

There are ample opportunities to collaborate around technology, particularly when it comes to platforms like Instagram, he said, as third-party platforms speed up the search process and there have been times around particularly troubling footage where it helps to share ideas and get an outside perspective.

For a local title the consequences of getting it wrong can be disastrous, stressed Trinity Mirror Regional's digital innovation editor Alison Gow, as the relationship between audience and publication may be stronger.

"If we're reporting an incident at a school and putting up a video without verification and we have panicked an entire community around us then that's on us forever."

And at the BBC, social media editor Chris Hamilton said the broadcaster tries to "reach a standard of two independent sources" corroborating or verifying content before using it. Bell recommended some specifics:
  • Establish a verification process
  • Stick to the verification process
  • Be transparent with audiences and users
  • Debunk when appropriate

The BBC Trending debunk of Syrian Hero Boy

'Amplify incentives' for verification

Little's competitive advantage and professional reputation rely on being right but the same is not true for all outlets.

A result of Craig Silverman's research as a Tow Center Fellow and founder of has been in identifying parts of the industry "focussed on frequency and volume" rather than accuracy.

A number of "large organisations" have a business model built around "getting as much shares and traffic as possible", even if a story, image or piece of footage has not been fully verified.

"That's the competitive tension," he said. "There are people who think if we get it up early and put up 'allegedly' or 'rumoured' around it to flag it then that's good enough.

"Then there's the other end which says your competitive advantage is never screwing up."

But Little insisted the "competitive urge should kick in" when an article cannot be verified and debunking should be praised to "amplify incentives for newsrooms to take the competitive urge to go out and prove or disprove something rather than be the first to print".

News organisations with higher standards should actively engage and "communicate the complexities" of verification while they are establishing if something is true, said Silverman, to make it a public conversation instead of only in the industry.

"And then if you know it's false to go out there and treat it as something really interesting," he said.

Establish a source's intentions

Permission should always be sought to use content from social media, and the first question should be in establishing whether the person posting the photo is the original source, said Gow, before "swiftly moving to email".

From there, questions should centre around asking whether the news outlet can use the footage on all titles, how the source would like to be credited and whether they would like payment, based on the same rate as a freelance.

In breaking news situations though, where there is a clear public interest in disseminating newsworthy content, a tweet may be enough to get permission, said Hamilton.

The grey area of fair use comes down to the intention of the original source and the circumstances around the story, said Little, categorising content into four clear statuses.

"There's public: The person who puts that out wants it to be seen by a mass audience. There's cleared: we talked to the individual and they've said what their intent is.

"There's licensed: they want to make some money out of it and have a proprietary interest. And there's contact: we don't know, we need to go find out. They haven't made their intentions clear and we need to go find out."

Such statuses guide the decision making process and at Storyful, journalists need to know that a source has seen the legal agreement and has explicitly agreed to the terms before they can license footage to clients.

An example of crediting and permission gone wrong, from Eyewitness Media Hub

Credit sources how they want to be credited

The issue of properly crediting sources is still widely mixed but the panel agreed on some simple standards to follow.

"It is absurd to say credit: YouTube or credit: Twitter," said Little. "It's like saying credit Gmail or credit Telephone. That is how it came to you, not where it's from."

Despite the detachment of social media in simplifying the process, sources should still be treated with the same respect as if they had delivered the content by hand.

Journalists need to ask the source if they want to be named, but more importantly how they want to be named, said Gow, whether it is with their real name or a username.

There are many instances when a source might not want to be named or when it may even be dangerous to do so. As before, the source's intent is what is important to establish here and Bell recommended some clear guidelines for crediting:
  • Always credit the individual
  • Ask the person how they want to be credited
  • Establish a transparent policy for crediting
Social media platforms could help the process

If eyewitnesses capture the content and newsrooms want to use it, what of the social media platforms themselves? They are facilitating the process, so could they help?

YouTube already has an option to make uploaded content available under a Creative Commons license, albeit well-hidden, and Little said the platform could go further in informing users of the terms of use and even prompting uploaders to clearly indicate how they want content to be used.

And it needn't be a full legal writ, but "just adding a line in there to say 'don't contact me but use it as you want'".

We need to come up with some kind of codeMark Little, Storyful
Silverman suggested Twitter or Facebook could have adjustable permission settings based on intention – turning embeds off, indicating content is available for licensing or free to download.

"It's one of the only solutions I can see happening," he said, "But platforms don't like to work on features that are that specialised unless, perhaps, there's a revenue model."

Could a pool system work in breaking news?

The dreaded 'death knock' in visiting the family of the deceased was a staple of news organisations until Facebook simplified the process.

As a reporter in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, one of Little's first jobs was in securing a photograph of a young man to use in the paper, but rather than have a queue of reporters down the street, the outlets shared the images.

Compare that to the "scrum" that formed around individuals who took images of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and it is clear the system is broken, said Bell. The treatment of some eyewitnesses borders on harassment and it is unlikely that they, their friends or family will want to help news oulets again.

So how to fix it?

Pool systems still operate under some circumstances at the BBC, said Hamilton, suggesting that under certain conditions in some countries or regional markets, it may be wise to explore a way to share content of exceptional importance.

There will still be a competitive edge in some cases, especially at a local level, said Gow, but Little stressed the difference around securing highly newsworthy footage for clearance under fair use, and a "proprietary ask" for licensing.

Pooling fair use footage was a no-brainer when it meant leaving a grieving family to piece their lives back together. The distancing effects of social and digital media and the current system of rewarding clicks may make it more difficult.

"That's a big challenge in the modern age," Little said. "But we need to come up with some kind of code."

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