"It alerts you to stories," said John Pullman, global head of video and pictures at Reuters. "It leads you to people involved in news events, it leads you to content that helps you tell news stories and that works across pictures, video and text. [It's] something that we take increasingly seriously."
But as the first images and videos to surface from the scene of a breaking news event are likely to appear on social networks nowadays, news organisations looking to secure permission to use this user generated content have to be careful in their approach.
Working with eyewitnesses on social media in a considerate way has only recently become a point of discussion, after many who have posted images or information from the scene of a story have been consistently bombarded by messages from journalists from all over the world requesting permission to use their material.
"I think the industry is beginning to realise we need to think about how we treat people," Pullman told Journalism.co.uk.
"Does the witness of a school shooting really want to get a hundred and fifty approaches on Twitter or Facebook saying 'give me your name and number, I'm interested in your picture'?
"We don't have a solution to that yet, but I think we need to avoid the wolf pack mentality."
At Reuters, the process of avoiding multiple approaches is "quite under control", he said.
The agency nominates a point of contact to lead the effort for each individual story, either a reporter from the dedicated social media team in London or someone from a regional bureau who speaks a specific language, for example.
"The bigger issue is multiple approaches from the whole industry and we haven't resolved that yet.
"That then brings up the whole problem of competition, and who's going to stand back and let their rivals get an exclusive piece of content."
But how different is contacting an eyewitness who has posted to social media from journalists contacting any eyewitness to a breaking news event – a standard newsgathering practice, whether it's done through a phone call or in person?It's in nobody's interest to see false information being circulated, I think the news industry has recognised that. We need to get it rightJohn Pullman, Reuters
British newspapers, for example, "have at no point, or rarely agreed to make a single approach to someone in a news story," said Pullman. "They generally make individual approaches, which perhaps works on that level.
"But when you're looking at social media and the fact that organisations from the whole world can find the content and approach the owner of it, it certainly increases the scale of the bombardment.
"It also increases the difficulty of coming to an agreement about how that should be handled," he explained.
While UK media outlets could potentially come to an understanding on making a single approach on behalf of all titles when an eyewitness is in a precarious situation, it would be hard to get a similar scheme to function worldwide.
"I think beginning to talk about it is a step in the right direction," said Pullman. "Right now I don't know what the answer is. It's certainly not regulation – cooperation and understanding are required."
The idea of user-generated content is not new, as many media outlets have featured material sent in by members of the public for decades. But the number of news events now covered by the public has increased exponentially with the rise of smartphones and quick connections to YouTube, Twitter and other social networks, posing a newsgathering challenge for the media.
At Reuters, the approach to working with eyewitness media has changed significantly in the last few years, explained Pullman.
User-generated content used to be handled by the reporter who was "nearer to the story", he said, while now it's in the hands of teams dedicated to news emerging from social media.
"We created specific roles for people who spend their working day in this area," he said. Their roles include sourcing news, assessing the veracity of materials, obtaining permission to use it and then packaging it into a news story.
"What's helping is that the journalists who work in these fields are happy to share their learnings.
"There is a very healthy practice of people sharing information, sharing tools and advice.
"It's in nobody's interest to see false information being circulated, I think the news industry has recognised that. We need to get it right," he said.
- John Pullman and Reuters social media producer George Sargent will be speaking at Journalism.co.uk's upcoming news:rewired in focus event in London on 21 October. There are still limited places available if you'd like to hear more about social media search and verification.
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