Last summer, the BBC created a dedicated department to filter and verify the mass of video clips and images sent in by the public. As Martin Stabe finds, the unit is already being expanded to cope with the volume of submissions
WITHIN MINUTES of the mudslide that destroyed the Philippine village of Guinsaugon in February, the BBC had an eyewitness account. A friend of a rescue worker who was on the scene emailed the BBC via its website. He was on the air within half an hour, giving a graphic account of what had occurred.
The grainy images from the London bombings last July and the amateur footage of the Buncefield oil depot fire in January were significant in the growth in news organisations’ use of amateur photography spawned by the increasing ubiquity of cameraphones.
Whether it’s a riot in Khartoum, an earthquake in Pakistan, or everyday life in Iraq, a witness with a cameraphone is rarely far from an unfolding event.
"Citizen journalism" is not a phrase heard frequently at the BBC. "User-generated content" is the preferred term in Television Centre.
Whatever the label, if anyone needs evidence that it is not putting trained journalists out of work, they need look no further than the busy newsroom of BBC News Online, where Nicola Careem, Felicity Cowie and Anna Stewart work.
Since last summer, the trio of broadcast journalists have formed the User Generated Content (UGC) hub, a dedicated BBC unit tasked with sifting though the deluge of material that the BBC’s global audience contributes to the corporation by email and text message, verifying its authenticity and legality, and ensuring that it is swiftly passed on to appropriate BBC news outlets.
"You don’t go into this lightly, thinking you can sack a few journalists and get the public to do our jobs for us. It’s just not like that — it’s quite the opposite actually," says BBC News interactivity editor Vicky Taylor, who oversees the hub.
"The main concern we have with this at the moment is the volume — it’s only going to become more and we need to ensure that we have the systems in place to deal with this. It’s incredibly resource-intensive. You need to have staff to look at all this material and decide whether to publish it or not."
Indeed, the UGC hub is expanding: next month three more journalists will join the team, allowing it to work longer hours in two shifts.
Whether sent by email or text message, all cameraphone images and videos arrive in the hub’s inbox. There, the first step is to verify its authenticity, accuracy and legality.
"You have to be aware that people may try to send you false information and false pictures. We don’t publish anything until we’ve seen it and checked it," says Taylor.
Deliberate hoaxes and attempts to claim credit for others’ work are less of a problem than wellintentioned members of the public sending interesting material for which they do not own the copyright, the UGC hub members say.
"Most people are genuinely wanting to see their work published in the best way possible. Very few people are trying to hoax the system, but you have to be aware of those who are," says Taylor. They are wary of correspondents who do not wish to discuss their pictures on the telephone.
"You can usually ascertain from a conversation if they’ve taken the picture, and then you can ask them if they’d be happy to talk live on TV for three minutes," says Cowie, who mainly supplies user-generated material to BBC News 24.
In this way, the unit also supplies new sources and case studies for stories being reported by journalists across the BBC.
"We’re almost like a news agency finding case studies and people we can go and interview to find out more about," says Cowie.
"It’s no different from any other journalistic source — it’s a tip-off. You then check it out and if it stands up, you publish it," says Taylor.
Once verified, images are passed on to another team that converts the files to the correct size for television before routing it to the picture desk and then onto a system where programme producers and output editors access the new user-generated material directly.
"Realistically, we could get something to air in five minutes," says Careem, who is responsible for feeding material about breaking news stories to BBC Newsgathering.
The London bombings last summer were a turning point for the corporation’s approach to usergenerated content. The BBC initially reported the police line that there had been power surges on the Underground. But the emails and text messages soon began pouring into BBC inboxes, telling a very different story.
"Email after email came in like nothing I’d ever seen before," recalls Cowie, who was working as a producer for BBC News 24 that morning.
"There were emails saying ‘there are bodies all over the tracks at Aldgate’ — really alarming stuff like that. We’d never factored in that the public would play such a massive role in breaking the story to us rather than us breaking the story to them."
In a second wave of messages, the cameraphone pictures began arriving — including the now famous pictures of the roofless double-decker at Tavistock Square.
The UGC was set up shortly afterwards to harness the phenomenon.
The Buncefield oil depot fire in January illustrated the massive increase in user-generated content over the following months, says Taylor: "This thing happened at six in the morning and before lunchtime we had 5,000 emails in the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox, and most of them contained multiple images. This was a massive increase from about 1,000 images that we received on 7 July."
The BBC aims to give a byline to anyone who sends a picture, but what they can’t expect is any payment, says Taylor: "As a publicly-funded organisation, we can’t pay people."
"You retain the copyright, so if you want to go and sell your picture you are free to do so, but by publishing it on the BBC we’re hoping people will get a platform, it will be seen and you can then do what you want with it."
While the increased use of footage provided by amateur bystanders makes some journalists uneasy, Taylor says the key task for journalists now is to find the best way to make use of this material: "People have cameraphones and they want to be involved in the news — you can’t uninvent it. As journalists, our job is to make the best of this content. It takes journalists to verify, to think creatively, to think of innovative treatments for television, to maximise this content."