How Journalists Can Make User-Generated Content Work

Associated Press social media editor Eric Carvin and Digital First Media managing editor Mandy Jenkins after their SXSW Interactive session.

Associated Press social media editor Eric Carvin and Digital First Media managing editor Mandy Jenkins after their SXSW Interactive session.

When news breaks, many media organizations turn to social media to find members of the public who become a reporter’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Collecting information in this way has many challenges – for example, verifying that a photo posted on Twitter is real. The key to solving these challenges is holding contributions from citizen journalists to the same ethical standards as work by professional journalists.

That was the main focus of a SXSW Interactive session by Associated Press social media editor Eric Carvin and Digital First Media managing editor Mandy Jenkins.

“If you don’t hold citizen journalists to the same standards, you are disrespecting social media as a tool for journalism,” Carvin said. Figuring out the best way to apply those standards is the hard part. The panelists shared some helpful tips:

  • If editors want to use a photo posted on social media, they should get in touch with the poster to ask permission and to verify that the poster took the photo. If the poster didn’t take it, he or she may not have a right to give permission. If you can’t reach the poster, it still may be in the public’s best interest to publish the photo, however.
  • When crediting a photo or video, editors need to be as specific as possible to let readers know where the content came from. Saying “Source: Twitter” isn’t good enough.
  • If you are asking citizen journalists to get you information, make sure they understand the ethical guidelines they need to follow. Most importantly, make sure they are safe. For example, are you asking people in a war zone to do something that will put them in danger, like give out their location?
  • Developing relationships with readers online helps build a trusted network of contributors. This means getting to know experts and citizen journalists in your area or industry. Have a list of social media accounts that you know are trustworthy. When readers contribute content, be responsive and treat them respectfully. When news breaks, these same readers are likely going to be the ones to reach out again.

Citizen journalism is only going to grow, and news organizations need to find a way to work with user-generated content, Jenkins said.

“There is a tendency in the journalism world to look down on people who are not journalists,” she said. “But you look at someone […] who runs their own blog, and a lot of times they are operating more ethically than all of us.”

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