Credit: By Sam Azgor on Flickr. Some rights reserved

WhatsApp is starting to play an increasingly important role in the gathering of eyewitness media at the BBC.

The broadcaster was first alerted to the rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers this month by a WhatsApp message from a person at the scene, explained Natalie Miller, senior broadcast journalist with the UGC team.

"We were able to give them a call and find out more details and pass the information on," she said.

The BBC Have Your Say team set up their WhatsApp account in February and started adding it to their 'calls for action', such as forms underneath stories on the website and messages on Twitter encouraging people to get in touch.

Miller told Journalism.co.uk that, as well as using Viber for public service announcements, the UGC team received a lot of material through WhatsApp after the earthquakes in Nepal.

"We were noticing that there is material coming in to our usual channel, so being sent to us directly, but we were getting a lot of content quicker through the WhatsApp account."

You have to check that this material is what it says it is, that it is from that event and it is that person's own content or they can put you in touch with the person who owns itNathalie Miller, BBC News
This might be because the chat app was a preferred method of communication for many in the area as the phone lines may have gone down after the natural disaster.

The account of the UGC team is not the only WhatsApp channel at the BBC.

The organisation has been experimenting on the platform for over a year, creating WhatsApp services around events such as the Indian election in 2014, or to act as a public service account in West Africa during the Ebola crisis.

The app enables people to send images and videos from their phones to their contacts, and as user numbers grow, WhatsApp is becoming an increasingly significant source of eyewitness media.

User-generated content sent to the BBC via WhatsApp goes through the same verification procedures as material found on other platforms, but there is one advantage.

"You'll have the phone code, so you'll know if not the country where the person is, the country where their phone was registered.

"So with Nepal we're obviously ringing and messaging people with English phone numbers who were obviously tourists there, as well as local numbers too."

With material received by email, for example, Miller said she'd have to email the sender back and try to establish a line of communication this way.

The verification process on WhatsApp is slightly quicker, but that doesn't mean there are no downsides.

For one, the BBC's UCG team has to wait for people to come to them with material, as opposed to searching for videos, images or information around a breaking news story as they might do on Twitter or other platforms with extensive search options.

And there's also the nature of the material people send on WhatsApp that news organisations need to consider.

Since its launch, the Have Your Say channel has received plenty of messages pointing to content people have discovered on the web, or messages drawing their attention to stories the BBC hasn't covered.

Sometimes the material sent can also be quite graphic, said Miller.

"It's the same pitfalls... You just have to check that this material is what it says it is, it is from that event and it is that person's own content or they can put you in touch with the person who owns it."

To connect with BBC Have Your Say on WhatsApp, add +44 (0)7525 900971.

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