Credit: Image by TapiF on Flickr. Some rights reserved

The combination of camera phones and social media has provided an unprecedented stream of images and video around breaking news events in recent years.

However, the phenomenon raises serious ethical and legal questions in terms of the content, context, rights ownership and verification of such media.

In May, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism published a report which examined the use of user-generated content (UGC) by news organisations. Now, the authors of the report have received $60,000 (£35,925) in funding from social media newswire Storyful to investigate the area further.

We would like to have a bill of rights that say yes, you have the copyright, people should be asking you permission and you have the right to say noClaire Wardle, Eyewitness Media Group
Claire Wardle, co-author of the original report and senior social media officer at UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, told Journalism.co.uk the previous research had raised a number of questions around the ethical use of UGC but was a long way from providing solutions.

"What we found from the research when we spoke to journalists is that people who were doing this everyday would say, 'actually, we would really like there to be some ethical framework or industry standards so we know what we are doing is correct or not correct'," said Wardle, previously director of news services at Storyful and a Tow Center research fellow.

Working under the name Eyewitness Media Group (EWMG), Wardle will work with Tow Center research fellow Sam Dubberley and research assistant Pete Brown, both co-authors of May's UGC report, to determine guidelines for the use of such footage across multiple industries, and the possibilities for digital tools to make the process easier for all parties.

"We would like to have a bill of rights that say yes, you have the copyright, people should be asking you permission, and you have the right to say no," said Wardle. "And when we're thinking about tools we're really interested in creating resources for uploaders so they can understand a lot more about this."

To illustrate the difference between UGC and eyewitness media, Wardle pointed to the recent Guardian Witness awards. While all entries, including an animated film of a boy with a pie for a head, can be considered as UGC, she said eyewitness media, by definition, is media captured by an individual at the scene of an event that may then be used by a publisher.

"What we wanted to say was this is a phenomenon," Wardle said. "People see something and they take their phones out of their pocket and they press record. They are eyewitnesses to something. If you're taking a picture of a picnic and you're at a picnic then that is eyewitness media but it doesn't have the same ethical concerns or raise huge verification problems [as with news events]."

Research from the initial report found that, while UGC was used on a daily basis by news organisations, 72 per cent was not credited or labeled, a figure that rose to 84 per cent in television broadcasts.

In some instances, broadcasters go so far as to remove a credit when the content creator added their own labelling to the image, as highlighted in a blog post accompanying the announcement.

"First of all we want to talk to uploaders," Wardle continued. "Say you're Tom Warners [provider of the above image], how do you feel about being deluged with media requests? How do you feel about your credit being taken off?

"But then we also want to talk to general audiences and say 'do you care if the BBC runs a credit or a label that says unverified pictures? Do you think there is screen clutter if you see Tom Warners name on the screen?'

"We don't actually know how the audience feel about eyewitness media."

The research will extend to "stakeholder roundtables" with industries outside of journalism, including human rights organisations, brands, PR firms and the social networks where the footage often first appears online, to get a fuller picture of the phenomenon on the whole as well as industry specific cases.

While there should be a standard code of conduct for the use of eyewitness media, such as asking for permission to use footage and crediting the copyright holder, she said, use cases are different across different industries so should be approached differently.

"As a newsroom you're probably not going to pay for breaking news content and you shouldn't pay for something that's come from Gaza [as it may reward gruesome images or encourage risk-taking from the public]. But if you're a PR company and you're using anyone's eyewitness media for advertising then you should be paying."

This Eyewitness Media Group is not going to work unless the different industries say 'yes we need help and want something like thisClaire Wardle, Eyewitness Media Group
After six months of research, Wardle hopes to be able to take some practical steps towards redressing the balance whereby the means of production in digital media have changed, but the rewards have not.

"Some people have said you should create an ombudsman role or an advertising standards agency role," she continued. "That's never going to work unless the industry says yes we want that kind of policing because we're pissed off that our competitors are using this kind of content in unethical ways.

"The reason for doing these stakeholder roundtables is to get a proper sense of, if there is a desire for this, what tools people would like, what would be helpful to them and to create a coalition."

Such tools could involve ways to simplify the process of "moving eyewitness media around the newsroom", said Wardle, building tools like Tagg.ly to help eyewitnesses submit credited content or discussing a universal system of metadata tagging among social networks.

The point though, she said, is to establish the relevant factors for the different parties involved and find solutions that work for all.

"This Eyewitness Media Group is not going to work unless the different industries say 'yes we need help and want something like this'," Wardle said. "So a big part of the stakeholder roundtables is to listen to people's problems and hear what they have to say."

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