police tape
Credit: By Provisions on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

User-generated content has been a regular fixture in newsrooms for decades, from submitted photographs to letters and opinions, but with the rise of mobile technology and social media it is playing an increasingly prominent role in the real-time nature of rolling, breaking news.

In his role as managing editor at Storyful, Markham Nolan deals with forms of user-generated content on a daily basis and occasionally finds that UGC itself may break the story rather than come alongside it.

"A good example would be the US elections," he told Journalism.co.uk, "where a lot of the most interesting material from the campaign trail was the stuff that was captured after network cameras were switched off."

When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks or incidents away from the news cameras, UGC may be the only source of information.

"The huge turning point in the [US] election was Mitt Romney and the 47 per cent," continued Nolan, "and that was amateur video, that was UGC."

These moments, however, are few and far between and in the majority of cases a loose plan or newsroom structure is necessary to manage UGC in breaking news.


The Denver Post has experience in breaking news situations. The paper was nominated twice in the breaking news category for this year's Pulitzer prize; firstly for reporting on a wildfire that, according to social media editor Dan Petty, "burned 300 homes to the ground"; and secondly for it's coverage of the Aurora cinema shooting, for which it won the award.

Rather than it being a singular award centred around a scoop or an individual's hard work, Petty explained how "print, digital, social, the whole works" contributed to making the coverage successful.

A large contributing factor in that team success was in having a nerve centre of editors in the newsroom, where the "metro and city editors, politics, night editors, public policy editors, photo editors" are all in one place.

"What that means is you kind of have this central hub of people communicating and sharing information, not only on social media but also obviously talking to one another," he said. "I can't emphasise enough how proximity in a crisis situation like that is important."

Aside from the editorial team, Petty stressed how having a versatile team on social media can also make the most of a breaking story.

"Our whole team is well versed in taking over the institutional side of social media really well. We can all play tag team and take different duties so we might break it down so I'm focussed on liveblogging and somebody else is focussed on Facebook and Google Plus and somebody else is focussed on Twitter."

This combination of communication and versatility creates an agile, reactive newsroom that can quickly respond to any situation and manage an influx of user-generated content as soon as it is needed.


We already had those sources well established and we knew where we needed to goDaniel Petty, social media editor, Denver Post
Petty also explained how, for the coverage of the Aurora shooting, his first thought was to turn to established sources on social media in the local area to get the facts.

"We know that we go to these 10,12,15 people that we just pull in right away on Twitter, so we do have those sources set up and that was really critical during Aurora.

"It gave us a big leg up in a lot of early reporting in that we already had those sources well established and we knew where we needed to go."

Journalists on the ground had their own sources but, with Petty's estimate of 90 per cent of the newsroom using Twitter for work, social media played an equal part in sourcing information and getting a greater layer of understanding.

Detailed planning in anticipation of a breaking news event can be counter-productive – every story is different so needs a different approach – but knowing where to look when events heat up can give a newsroom a running start.

"Pre-curated Twitter lists are absolutely essential in ensuring that we can find the best information as quickly as possible," said Petty.

The liveblog

When news actually breaks, these pre-curated contact lists are the first port of call; there will always be someone at the scene quicker than a newsroom can dispatch a reporter. Those reporters will naturally do their job once they arrive but setting up a liveblog and managing the flow of UGC in the wake of an event can often be vital for news outlets wanting to offer up-to-the minute information on breaking news.

At the Guardian, Paul Owen has recently run a live blog for the Syrian civil war, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher and the Boston bombings, among others. As such, he has first hand experience of managing a constant stream of reports and footage from multiple sources in the context of a constantly evolving story.

The Guardian's Boston liveblog, he said, "was quite a straightforward example as all the videos that came through of the explosions back each other up".

"They show the same thing from different angles so it's relatively easy to show that they are accurate."

But not all UGC has enough context for a journalist to be able to make an informed decision on exactly what is being seen. Owen gave an example of a video he was sent which claimed to show people "looting marathon jackets just after the bombing had happened".

"The person who sent it to me is a trusted source but I watched the video and they could be doing anything, it could be a stall for free jackets for people who participated in the marathon. You just don't have enough information to be able to say that that video is what it says it is so I didn't use it at all."

In circumstances like that it comes down to journalistic instinct, says Owen.

Where is this information coming from? If it's an anonymous source being told to a news agency then that's two steps away from youPaul Owen, journalist, Guardian
"You just have to judge it yourself and decide whether it is trustworthy. You don't have to know who it is who sent it, most of the time it's just a member of the public."

Unconfirmed reports became a minefield of uncertainty in the hours and days following the bombs that killed three and injured more than 250 in Boston, as Owen told Journalism.co.uk the day after the attack. Rumours of more bombs, of a Saudi national being detained, of a firebombing at a library, were all false reports published by news outlets.

"Where is this information coming from?," he said. "If it's an anonymous source being told to a news agency then that's sort of two steps away from you, so we've been very cautious."

In these cases, Owen said the team effort of journalists managing social media and reporters on the ground becomes vital in establishing what should be reported and how.

The same can be said of Al-Jazeera English, where web producer Cajsa Wikström first started working with the liveblog and regularly published UGC when covering the revolution in Egypt.

"The first video we tried to verify was someone being shot by police in Egypt, in Alexandria, in the street, and we thought 'how can we know this is even Egypt? How can we know?' So we started emailing and contacting the person who uploaded it but eventually we couldn't. That's kind of where the debate started, how do we actually verify things?"

Wikström says that the occurrence of UGC in live reporting really took off once the civil war started in Syria, but there were still circumstances where verification would be impossible and content would go unpublished or only with a suitable disclaimer.

Two years later, the stream of content from Syria has largely faded into background noise, said Wikström, in which only truly memorable events stand out. Al-Jazeera English has a team set up to monitor social media for fresh news but often the material is sent from Syrian groups themselves.

"We do receive a lot, especially in Syria because activists are so active," continued Wikström, "it's like the whole Al-Jazeera network has probably been added to a lot of the activist groups' email lists."

The power and importance of UGC in the context of covering a civil war, as in Syria, is represented in the video below of an Al-Jazeera report. Aside from a reporter embedded with troops in Aleppo, it includes footage purported to be of rebels fighting government soldiers in Qusayr, (see from 1:00). The report was broadcast on June 4, a day before the rebels lost the city.


The constantly evolving status of a rolling news situation such as Syria blurs the line between UGC and known sources, providing a constant test for journalists. Paul Owen says he regularly receives similar videos at the Guardian as the team at Al-Jazeera.

"I probably get about five or six emails a day from different groups who send different videos. One of the best ones is a group who have a really good Facebook page and the group is called the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria.

"Everyday they have a network of people around Syria and they post videos and have reports on what's going on and what's happened in various parts of the country so if I'm doing the Middle East blog I'll always check what they're doing. That's not to say I take their stuff as gospel, I don't, but it's a good starting point as they've been right before and over a long period of time you begin to trust certain groups over others."

Owen believes correspondence from these groups represents "a better starting point than searching YouTube or Twitter for videos that have a certain hashtag that you might be looking for", but verification techniques have become increasingly important as the war has worn on.

In some cases that means cross-checking landmarks that appear in videos with Google maps to verify where a video is taking place. What is much more difficult, however, is proving when the footage was captured.

"So if you look up part of the video's link," says Owen, "the unique part of the link, if you look that up on Google and Twitter and lots of links come up from two years ago then you know not to use it because it's old.

"If all the links that come up are from the last 24 hours then that's another step in your decision of whether to use it or not. But again it doesn't prove that it happened in the last 24 hours. The closest you may get is to prove that it didn't."

At certain times you could have three separate videos shot from three separate angles of the one event, which gives you a really good view of everythingMarkham Nolan, managing editor, Storyful
At Storyful, Nolan regularly deals with videos from Syria where the verification process has become "second nature".

In one particularly gruesome episode, the Storyful team received a video from Syria showing two people being beheaded with a chainsaw.

"You could hear screams in the video, the sounds of the chainsaw, everything in Arabic," he said. "But it actually turned out to be a video that was four years old from Mexico and it happened during the drug wars around the border there.

"We were able to debunk that quite quickly and say 'Look, this isn't a Syria video, it's being made for propaganda services by the rebel forces trying to smear the army further'."

In this case Nolan said initial suspicions arose through a traditional journalistic "spidey-sense".

"We started running searches for varieties of the word chainsaw. We did it in a couple of different languages through YouTube and we just stumbled across this  video, in Mexico, of a chainsaw beheading and the visuals were exactly the same."

In other cases, it may be a process of using footage to verify reports rather than the other way round.

"In Bahrain, the government line was often completely at odds with what we were seeing on the ground," said Nolan, "and at certain times you could have three separate videos shot from three separate angles of the one event which gives you a really good view of everything.

"It gives you almost a 360 degree panorama of an event happening and the government is denying that it actually took place. You can stand that up and say 'No, listen, this is clearly something that took place, the date can be verified, all the different reports correlate and you're trying to say it didn't happen'."

This type of situation, where there are multiple sources of UGC documenting one event, is an area of specialisation for a group at the UC Berkeley Data and Democracy Initiative. The Rashomon Project, which received Knight Prototype funding and was recently featured on Journalism.co.uk, allows multiple videos to be played simultaneously to get to the root of events in a contentious situation.

We're going to be living in an increasingly documented world the challenge is how do we keep up with that flow of documentationKen Goldberg, professor of new media, UC Berkeley
Born out of a disputed course of events involving the police response to protests at UC Berkeley and UC Davis in 2011, professor in new media and Rashomon Project leader Ken Goldberg told Journalism.co.uk that the he wants the project to be provide a timeline within 24 hours of an event to reduce the amount of time for speculation and rumour to get in the way of the truth.

"What we're really after is that all sides will be able to tell their part of the story, in some cases the police have footage that they don't feel they'll be able to release and the activists have one perspective, one narrative to tell and it's very complex and what we're clear about is trying to get to as fair and unbiased a presentation as possible, saying let's put everything on the table, and let's not hold back.

"So if there's a time gap in it it will show up, the metadata will indicate that there's a missing piece and it won't line up with the others and that will be evidence that something was cut out. If the police give us a  tape and they've cut out a choice section that they didn't want anyone to see then that will be obvious."

There will always be the need for trained reporters and journalists to verify reports as they unfold and to analyse their meaning in the aftermath. But, with global smartphone sales approaching one billion, the general public has an increasing role to play in that conversation.

"I think we're going to be living in an increasingly documented world the challenge is how do we keep up with that flow of documentation," said Goldberg. "Otherwise we could be led to all kinds of false conclusions because we only see one side."

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