The Hub How user-generated content is changing journalism

How user-generated content is changing journalism

By: Bryan Alary and Dr. Michael Lithgow

New book from Athabasca University communications and media studies professor explores how news gathering has changed in the smartphone era

When a 9.1-magnitude undersea earthquake struck on Dec. 26, 2004, near the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis in history.

More than 230,000 were killed in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Maldives, as massive waves tore through communities along the Indian Ocean. Like most major disasters, footage of the event and aftermath soon dominated TV coverage across the globe. But what was different about this story was that most of the videos weren’t shot by trained journalists but by bystanders with cellphones and camcorders.

Video of the 2004 tsunami captured by an eyewitness.

Audiences embrace authenticity of user-generated content

It wasn’t the first time user-generated content, or UGC, shaped news coverage, but it was an example of how locally sourced videos filled a void for news organizations unable to get their own reporters and camera crews on the ground.

“What news organizations quickly realized was that audiences loved user-generated content,” said Dr. Michael Lithgow, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Athabasca University. “Audiences are drawn to the sense of immediacy that grainy, shaky cellphone footage gives—that sense of somebody being there, not even as a journalist but as an eyewitness. UGC has a heightened sense of authenticity.”
Eyewitness Textures book cover
In the two decades since, user-generated content in the form of videos and photographs continue to inform news coverage of events from the Arab Spring, to instances of police brutality like the 2020 killing of George Floyd, to the more recent wars in the Ukraine and the Middle East.

Lithgow and Dr. Michèle Martin of Carleton University recently co-edited a new book: Eyewitness Textures: User-Generated Content and Journalism in the Twenty-First Century. With 14 chapters by different authors, the book explores the impact of user-generated content on modern journalism around the world.

The Hub recently sat down with Lithgow to learn more about how user-generated content has forever changed the news business, and the role of technology in shaping breaking news and trust in journalism.


Banner image: Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt during the Arab Spring in February 2011. Mona, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hub

What interested you in the topic of user-generated content and journalism?

My research has always focused broadly on ways that members of the public appropriate the means of cultural production as a way of challenging systems of power. These questions applied in a broadcast environment changed radically when the internet came along.

Part of understanding these changes was looking at the ways citizens were taking advantage of affordances of digital technologies to challenge long-held monopolies of cultural institutions, such as journalism, and user-generated content is one of those areas.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

When did user-generated content start to change journalism, and breaking news in particular?

An early example of UGC is Rodney King [a police beating captured on a camcorder] in the ’90s, but I don’t think that was the watershed moment. Once the smartphone became more ubiquitous, we saw events in the world where professional journalists didn’t have access. For example, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, and then the Arab Spring in particular, in 2010, are examples that come to mind.

One of the chapters in the book, co-authored with my colleague, Dr. Martin, examined UGC used in the CBC’s and France 24’s coverage during the first 100 days of the Arab Spring.  Even then, their approach was ad hoc.

Very few news organizations had UGC verification procedures in place, so there was widespread use of unverified footage, sometimes footage only peripherally related to the news stories it was found in.

Today, most newsrooms have UGC verification teams and standard verification procedures. In 10 years it has become a routine part of news journalism practice.

In places where it is hard to get journalists in—the war in Gaza is a good example—people filming and posting are the only way of getting footage out to the world. News organizations have realized that UGC allows them access to stories and events that they would otherwise have no access to.


Video obtained by Reuters shows the inside of a Japan Airlines plane as flight crews deal with passengers following a collision with another plane on Jan. 2, 2024.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

Why is user-generated content so compelling—and powerful?

Voices that were conventionally ignored—or neglected or unseen—by professional news and media organizations suddenly had a platform. There was this chorus of voices coming out in snapshots and photographs and audio recordings and video clips of events and phenomena that otherwise the public had no access to.

That became very interesting to me not only in terms of what the implications were for the ability of the public to direct agendas of cultural attention and inquiry, but also the practice of journalism itself.

Most of us never see UGC outside of the news narratives journalists edit. But if you decontextualize UGC content, what you find are very different kinds of subjectivities being produced—situated, insider, relational, accountable, affected—very different from the objective, disconnected orientation of traditional journalism. This analysis is also in a chapter in the book.

UGC creates ethical subjectivities, or it can—maybe partly why audiences respond to it so strongly.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

Where did the idea for a book come from?

In 2019, Dr. Martin and I, along with Dr. Lucille Mazo at MacEwan University, hosted the Eyewitness Textures symposium at MacEwan, where we had scholars and journalists from around the world gather to talk about user-generated content. Following that symposium, we did a call for papers, and some of the papers that were presented were developed into chapters of the book, along with other papers that weren’t part of the symposium.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

How has user-generated content evolved as news organizations started to realize its value?

Everybody that we spoke to—every news organization—said that UGC was increasingly a central part of newsroom activities. We spoke to somebody at the BBC, who was instrumental in the founding of the BBC UGC hub, which was their first newsroom iteration of a dedicated UGC news desk. Similarly, the European Broadcast Union (EBU), the CBC, Global News and France 24 all have dedicated UGC operations and staff.

France 24’s Observers program is one of the most innovative programs in the world where not only do they manage and source and verify user-generated content, they also collaborate with citizen journalists to do programming on location all over the world.

We also spoke with producers at Storyful, originally an Irish company that was later purchased by Rupert Murdoch. What they do is source user-generated content from all over the world.

They verify it, they package it, and then they resell it to news organizations either with or without contextualizing reportage. They’re working with The New York Times, Wall Street Journal. It’s a very “A-list” group of buyers for their particular product.


Footage shows a car in midair before exploding at the Rainbow Bridge near the U.S.-Canada border on Nov. 22, 2023.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

Trust in the media and journalism seems to be at an all-time low. How does user-generated content and its inherent authenticity influence trust in journalism?

I think it helps build trust. I think you’re right, that journalists get a pretty bad rap in terms of public trust. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes not. But I think for citizens, seeing their contributions and the contributions of other citizens does increase the authenticity of the discourses that emerge from news media.

And UGC can drive the news agenda, forcing mainstream news organizations to cover issues and stories that they might otherwise have ignored or downplayed.


A protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

News organizations in Canada have been criticized for lack of diversity in newsrooms, especially among management. Is user-generated content part of the fix and giving rise to different voices?

There have been some fairly recent studies looking at journalism in Canada, and they have found a continuing lack of diversity in newsrooms. User-generated content provides access to voices that conventionally and historically have been excluded, but user-generated content is not a solution to that problem by any means. The solution is to diversify the newsroom so that it reflects the complexity of the world.

And there are other complications that can arise. In another chapter in the book, a group of CBC journalists write about their experiences as Indigenous and Black journalists having to witness often traumatic violence being perpetrated against Black and Indigenous bodies in user-generated content.

Newsrooms are changing, albeit too slowly, to be accountable to these kinds of unique newsroom forms of trauma that disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous journalists.


 

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Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo, a Wet’suwet’en land defender, shares an update on police raids in January 2022.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

Is there a risk of user-generated content replacing the role of the journalist?

Everybody that we spoke to in the news industry said that UGC doesn’t replace journalism, but it introduces new practices of journalism. Journalists are still required to verify facts and to manage the content, but some of the tasks have changed.

It does raise questions about the relationship between contributors to news outcomes and the organizations that produce them, especially in terms of unpaid labour and sourcing content from citizens in high-risk scenarios. These are tensions we are continuing to explore in our research.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The Hub

Your book features contributions by scholars and journalists who have penned different chapters. What was that process like?

The book has chapters from scholars in Africa, South America, North America, and from a few territories in Europe. We’re excited about the fact that there is this global representation of a global conversation.

Uniquely, we have combined the voices of scholars and journalists, not always voices that get along easily. At the symposium, it was tense at times because scholars often sound like they are criticizing what the journalists do, and the journalists are like, “You guys have no idea what you’re talking about—how different it is on the ground, working to deadline, and so on.” It was a rich conversation, and so we managed to capture these very different voices in the book.

To really understand these important changes we need both—the experiences and views of journalism from the inside—from practitioners—and from scholars who can bring a measured view not caught up in the demands of the profession. That’s pretty exciting.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

Published:
  • January 4, 2024
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Guest Blog from:
Bryan Alary and Dr. Michael Lithgow