Almost every major news event of the last five years has featured smartphone footage. If something catastrophic or unexpected occurs, a common reaction is to document it.
Eyewitnesses with smartphones will always beat a reporter in gathering newsworthy footage, but the phenomenon is so new that many newsrooms currently don't have guidelines for finding and using it.
"This doesn't always apply to breaking news, but it can apply for viral content as well," said Jenni Sargent, director of the Eyewitness Media Hub (EMhub), at workshop following this week's news:rewired digital journalism conference.
And increasingly, the issue is creating legal and ethical problems for news outlets.
Launching as a non-profit to build on research for the Tow Center last summer, EMhub aims to investigate possible industry standards, asking journalists and members of the public for their opinions and experiences.
EMhub will publish its first major piece of research later this year, exploring how eyewitness media is handled by eight global online news publications and detailing numerous instances of eyewitnesses giving or selling footage to news organisations.
In some cases, journalists were courteous and accommodating to their sources. In others, the imagery was taken without permission.
Although there is an argument for fair dealing – that newsworthy images are exempt from copyright claims for a certain period of time – journalists need to treat eyewitnesses with the same respect they would other sources, said Sargent, to create a positive culture of sharing into the future.
Sargent and Eyewitness Media Hub co-founder Sam Dubberley shared a checklist on "the etiquette of consent" based on their research.There can be all sorts of reasons why you don't want your name accompanying a piece of eyewitness mediaJenni Sargent, Eyewitness Media Hub
Contacting eyewitnesses on social media to use their footage? Make sure you remember these:
This may seem obvious, but blasting into a community with "can I use this photo?" wouldn't get you far in real life, so why should it on social media?
"Make it clear that you are a journalist and be transparent," said Sargent.
Enquire about their safety
In the aftermath of a bombing or natural disaster, for example, the person who uploaded the footage may still be in danger, and may not realise it. Journalists have a responsibility to their sources.
Equally, you need to consider whether the eyewitness may be traumatised by events and choose your words accordingly.
Ask if they shot the footage themselves
Any legal, ethical or commercial considerations which come into using a picture or video from social media could be swiftly undone if it turns out the person you're speaking to didn't take the photo.
If the real rights holder comes forward and threatens to sue there will be some tricky questions to answer.
Ask for permission
Not asking permission can be expensive. Very, very expensive.
Say how and where the images will be used
How the video will be used may affect an eyewitness's decision to give consent, and breaking or going back on an agreement can damage your or your outlet's reputation for dealing with sources.
Ask if they would like to be credited
Standard practice should always be to credit sources, but "there can be all sorts of reasons why you don't want your name accompanying a piece of eyewitness media", said Sargent.
Some may be simple, like skipping work or an extra-marital affair, but in other cases it may be life-threatening to reveal a source's identity, she said.
Ask them how they would like to be credited
Some eyewitnesses might not want to highlight their social media profile and attract attention, whereas others might prefer not to reveal their true identity.
"Many people will want to remain anonymous," said Dubberley, although this will not always be the case. So ask.
Don't be an egg!
The social element of social media is what makes it work. So just as you wouldn't trust an anonymous note from a stranger, you can't expect sources to trust you if you don't show them who you are.
Invite them to contact you privatelyYou need to ask for context so you don't look ridiculous for publishing something that's not accurateJenni Sargent, Eyewitness Media Hub
Once you have made contact it's wiser to discuss any details in private. Unless, like a butcher at a rural cattle market, you prefer doing your business in public.
The source may feel differently, however, and there are many parts of the process – such as payment – it would be wise to hide from competitors.
Establish whether they expect payment
There is an argument that anyone whose work is used by news organisations should be paid, and an equal argument that the use of a newsworthy image from social media is considered fair dealing, so not restricted by copyright.
In terms of best practice, Sargent and Dubberley argued that sources should at least be given the option to create a positive relationship. If a source feels jilted, they may well tell their friends to never share images with journalists.
Ask if they are dealing with any agencies
An eyewitness on the ground may not be fully aware of the intricacies of media outlets or copyright law, so you need to know if they are speaking to anyone else.
"It's much better to get it out in the open rather than to get a stern note from an agency giving you a few hours to take that down," Sargent said.
Link to a license agreement
There is a clear moral obligation to let people know their rights when using or licensing a piece of work, but that isn't really possibly in a 140 character direct message.
Ask them to add a line of context to the photo
Just as you would ask witnesses what they saw on the scene, you need to establish what the eyewitness saw which may not have been include in the video, and get a better feel for the events.
"You need to ask for context so you don't look ridiculous for publishing something that's not accurate," said Sargent.
Attempt to communicate in the uploader's native language
During the Charlie Hebdo attack, journalists from around the world were trying to contact Parisiens who had uploaded pictures or video.
"Unsurprisingly, the French-language journalists were more successful," said Sargent.
Consider the potential effect of publishing on other people in the footage
When it comes to "vulnerable people or minors" who appear in eyewitness media, it is important to consider the effect on them, said Sargent, as "if you're just an eyewitness you perhaps don't understand the responsibility [that comes with] what you're about to share".
Equally, depending on the circumstances, identifying other people in the footage may put them at risk in a similar way to naming the source.
Acknowledge the value of the footage
Journalists who mention how useful or valuable a picture or video is are likely to be more successful in using it, said Sargent, in a similar way to speaking in the source's native language. It doesn't hurt to make some extra effort to be positive, and on social media that can go a long way.
Like any emerging trend, the boundaries and guidelines have yet to be fully established, so Sargent and Dubberley were clear that this was a first draft in helping everyone use eyewitness media, safely, responsibly and ethically.
- View more training courses from Journalism.co.uk.
Eyewitness media and ethics in the wake of Charlie Hebdo (podcast)
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