Eyewitness media, or audiovisual content shared by individuals directly from the scene, must be regarded as another form of citizen generated data. This content may be personal, commercially lucrative, and potentially graphic. Navigating a ‘digital frontline’, Eyewitness Media Hub make the case for the proper use and consumption of this media content.
Eyewitness media, video and pictures captured by those who happen to be at the scene of events, is now a mainstay of breaking news. On 7 January 2015, many of us unwittingly clicked and watched the final moments of Ahmed Merabet, the first police officer at the scene of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The moment of his death, assassinated lying in the streets of Paris, was found, published and retweeted by news organisations and individuals alike across the globe. Eyewitness reactions to the Paris events from all over the world were gathered, repackaged and used by news organisations to tell the story. In August, we saw the horrific assassination of two CBS journalists in the United States from the eyes of the killer. Earlier in the same month, the aftermath of a bomb in Bangkok was broadcast to the world on Periscope.
Each of these events brings with it new ethical issues, new challenges, unthought of obstacles. News organisations ask if they were right to find and publish the assassination of Ahmet Merabet so quickly? What challenges are presented by social media networks incorporating autoplay into their functionality – when it means we see an assassination whether we want to or not? In light of the Bangkok bomb, what will Periscope’s ability to broadcast live to the world from a smartphone bring to newsgathering? Journalists and social media producers competitively scour the internet looking for new, original content – how do newsrooms protect them from experiencing vicarious trauma which can lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder even though they may be researching events taking place on different continents?
These very issues – from ethics to copyright, to the challenges of new platforms, to the impact of traumatic content on the journalist and the audience – compelled us to launch Eyewitness Media Hub at the end of 2014. We believe that news organisations have to address the logistical, ethical and legal challenges surrounding eyewitness media relating to ownership, consent, safety and critical consumption. If we do not address this now, we must expect problems – that could go as far as eyewitnesses not sharing their content with publishers – later on.
Eyewitness media’ vs user-generated content
Let’s get one issue out of the way: the term user-generated content (UGC). This has been a contentious phrase for quite a few years now, since it feels impersonal, ignoring the fact that a person, an individual, has borne witness to an event. That event may be mundane (a sunrise used in a weather report); it may be spectacular (meteorites falling out of the sky in Russia); it may be traumatic (like the terrorist attacks in Paris). Whatever it is, the evidence has been captured by an eyewitness – hence we say let’s leave UGC behind and use the term ‘eyewitness media’.
Verification of eyewitness media is now part of the editorial vernacular, editors recognise its importance, and there are an increasing number of experts now routinely debunking and confirming stories. Skill levels and commitment to it may vary, but newsrooms know it needs to be done and most have at least one dedicated journalist who is good at establishing the authenticity of photographs and videos shared online. It’s time for newsrooms to take the next steps and understand how to handle this content.
What will these next steps involve?
First and foremost, it means looking after the eyewitness. Going back to Paris, Jordi Mir, the unfortunate eyewitness to Ahmet Merabet’s death, told Associated Press of his regret about uploading and sharing the video. Even though Mir requested news organisations not to show the moment of death (once a sine qua non of journalism), many around the world did.
Secondly, it means encouraging newsrooms to consider the legal and, more importantly we would argue, ethical complexities of crediting and copyright.
Thirdly, it’s about management being aware of the pressures their staff may be under when spending time looking at this content.
Looking after the ‘accidental journalist’
When Emily Carroll witnessed a collision between two planes on the tarmac at Dublin Airport at the end of 2014, she tweeted some photographs from her seat on the plane. Within seven minutes she had received a usage request from a journalist. Over the next few hours she received more than 20 others. Of the 26 requests tweeted to Emily over the course of the day, only one asked if the pictures were hers; two asked if she was OK; and seven mentioned that they would credit.
The questionable etiquette surrounding permission requests made online is one of our most stark observations. The question ‘Can we use your photo?’ is rarely accompanied by ‘Are you OK?’ or ‘Are you safe?’ or, even, ‘Did you take this?’ Any reference to credits or licensing is usually glossed over, if mentioned at all, and often these ‘accidental journalists’ are placed under extreme pressure to respond immediately.
Emily patiently agreed to most of the requests she received, but then appeared to license her photographs through an agency eight hours later. So what would that mean for the consent that she had already granted to other organisations? And should she have been expected to make informed decisions while still seated on the plane having just witnessed a distressing event?
The same happened in the aftermath of an Amtrak train crash just outside Philadelphia in May 2015. Here, former US senator Patrick Murphy, a passenger on the train, used his phone to tweet pictures he had snapped. Mr Murphy’s pictures were quickly found by eager journalists who launched a twitter storm of requests for use. These journalists, who were really just doing their jobs, were then set upon by members of the public who accused them of being vultures.
Many eyewitnesses feel, of course, that they are performing a civic duty by reporting their experiences on social media, and accept the instant demand for their content by picture desks and journalists as inevitable. Would these contributors feel differently if the content they had shared freely then contributed to the increased traffic, readership and, in some cases, advertising revenue for news sites?
An eyewitness who negotiated a fee with the Mail Online to use his photo of a small fire that broke out at Charing Cross station went on to experience serious bullying from some Twitter users who objected to him trying to profit from a potential tragedy. Others online supported his decision, suggesting that the news sites should definitely pay if they wanted to use his photo.
This really is unchartered territory for both newsrooms and content owners.
Understanding eyewitness media copyright is essential
We have heard many lawyers speak about the grey areas within eyewitness media and copyright issues, mostly in terms of what journalists can get away with regarding content permissions. Copyright expert Adam Rendle is a member of our advisory board, and has helped illuminate some of the complexities of copyright law. In particular, he has emphasised that it is crucial for editors to understand what “fair use” is, and means, in a copyright context. If you do not credit then you can forget any chance of using a fair use defence, should a legal case be brought against you. Furthermore, if newsrooms do not begin taking crediting and labelling seriously, it could significantly impact the current access they have to this content as copyright law continues to develop in the future.
The legal consequences for newsrooms are not the only consideration. Failing to accurately attribute can also have a negative impact on your brand. When Tom Warners, an aviation enthusiast from the Netherlands, snapped a shot of Malaysian Airlines MH17 taking off on its ill-fated flight from Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, he posted the image to his Twitter account. This generated a lot of use request tweets to Tom’s timeline, including one from the BBC. Taking the conversation offline, Tom agreed, but requested a credit. As this credit did not materialise when the shot was aired initially, Tom directed his anger in later tweets, damaging the BBC brand in however small a way 1 We wrote about Tom Warners as part of this piece on Medium: https://medium.com/@emhub/the-use-of-eye-witness-media-in-breaking-news-3f3df0535f18#.yytira3i7.
Eyewitnesses are becoming increasingly aware of their rights, which means news organisations should now be building crediting mechanisms into their workflow. A common response in our research interviews with senior editors and producers was “we are often too busy getting the content to air.” But would that excuse fly if a news organisation sought to use a direct competitor’s content through fair use?
This is even more important online. Many news sites often scrape eyewitness media from the platform it has been shared on, brand it with their own logo, and present it in their own media players with obligatory pre-roll advertising, instead of embedding or linking to the original.
Acknowledge the psychological impact
Our third area of interest is vicarious trauma, which can occur as journalists scour YouTube and other online networks to discover and verify eyewitness media. This is a labour intensive process and can expose journalists to content that will never be aired, embedded, and shouldn’t be seen by anyone. Vicarious trauma occurs through the emotional residue of the pain, fear and terror endured by the subjects of some eyewitness footage. Our research suggested that while some newsrooms are aware of this issue and have taken steps to protect their staff and colleagues, many more do not. One senior manager told us in 2013 that: “I’ve been watching graphic footage since 1988. I don’t think there’s any difference”. Except there is.
According to preliminary data from our research, some 46% of desk journalists (newsroom junior staff) were not prepared for high volumes of traumatic eyewitness media before they started in their role. The same group was asked if they had considered that it could have a negative impact on them. 56% had not. Yet, once in their roles, 46% of journalists believed that viewing traumatic eyewitness media had had a negative impact on their personal life. 58% of desk journalists working with eyewitness media saw a traumatic piece of content more than once a week.
Journalists need an environment in which they can talk about traumatic content without feeling conscious of whether such behaviour will affect their careers. Creating this environment is not related to organisation size, or how many people are working on a desk, but simply managerial culture. Tackling this issue is going to be crucial for social media editors and producers going forward. As are all the other challenges outlined above.
That is the mission behind Eyewitness Media Hub. It’s about pushing news organisations to handle eyewitness media sensitively, responsibly, and in a way that is sustainable. We want to involve journalists in this discussion and ensure that eyewitnesses, the content owners, continue to provide footage that helps us understand the chaos around us. We want to take this conversation further.