It’s now commonplace to see vertical videos on the news, but this isn't because of lazy cameramen. In 2013 There were over 4.3 Billion camera phones on the planet alone, allowing any one of their owners to instantaneously become photographers, videographers and editors. Camera accessibility has meant that many of us can capture the latest news before a journalist gets anywhere near it, and news media organisations have had to accept this and adjust their business models to suit.
When newsrooms appropriately use User Generated Content (UGC) it can improve the value of the news products they produce. On the other hand, lack of processes or safeguards when using UGC can massively jeopardise the reputation of a newsroom and spread inaccurate information.
Here's a list of five instances where inaccurate user-generated-content has made it to the mainstream media.
1: Brussels Bombings 2016
On 22 March 2016, just before 8:00 a.m., two bombs exploded in Zaventem Airport in Brussels. It was only minutes later when the images from the airport started to circulate on social media. Journalist Anna Ahronheim posted the video above, showing the destroyed facade if the airport with panicked civilians fleeing the scene. Ahronheim received numerous requests from fellow journalists, asking to use the footage, which swiftly made its way onto live TV and online newspapers. But Ahronheim didn't record the video herself, it had been shared in a Whatsapp group and she didn't personally know the source. Ahronheim clarified this in a follow-up tweet but by then it was too late. The video had been aired on TV, attributing Ahronheim and, unsurprisingly, her follow-up tweet didn't get nearly as much interest as the first. Months after the attack the video was still visible in international media outlets, being wrongly attributed to Ahronheim.
This is a tame example of misinformation, with minimal harmful effects. Luckily in this case, although it may damage newsroom trust, the mistake wasn't detrimental because the footage is verifiable. There are some cases however where mistakes can be costly.
2: Chop & Steel Strongmen
Although not quite user generated content, this example is most definitely a 'fake news' fail (or a fake news win). Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher posed as a strongman duo named Chop & Steel and, miraculously, three unsuspicious morning news shows booked them to promote their fictional "Give thanks for strengths" tour. Although two of the news stations accepted being duped, one of them started a legal battle, which resulted in a settlement when they caught wind that Vice News planned to do a piece on the situation. Chop & Steel are one of the most hilariously absurd local news TV appearances— demonstrating that verification and vetting are paramount in the editorial process, not only to stop the spread of harmful misinformation but to protect the reputation of newsrooms and stop them looking like idiots.
3: Houla Massacre 2012
In May 2012 the BBC news website used an image of rows of wrapped-up bodies as a header in an article about the Syrian Houla Massacre. This photo was first circulated on twitter before the BBC used it on their website. Although they stated that the photo couldn't be verified, it soon came to light that the picture was not taken from the Houla massacre but from Iraq in 2003.
4: ‘A Gay Girl In Damascus’
Believed to be written by Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari —a 35-year-old, dual Syrian and American citizen living in Damascus— 'A Gay girl In Damascus' was a popular blog which covered topics such as Amina's upbringing, her experiences of the US and Syria, the Syrian conflict, her sexuality and her religion.
When a blog post surfaced that claimed that Amina had been abducted, there was a large response from the LGBT community, social networking websites and the mainstream media, but it also raised doubts. After investigating it was revealed that the blog's author was a 40-year-old American studying at Edinburgh University.
5: The Fake War on a Flight
Back in 2013 Buzzfeed posted an article, ironically, entitled "The Truth Behind That Epic Note-Passing War On A Thanksgiving Flight". It reported on a to-and-fro between two passengers, one of which was a TV producer that live-tweeted the argument. As the old age saying goes, if it seems too good to be true it probably is, and in this case, it was. Buzzfeed issued a correction when Elan Gale revealed that the "war" was a prank.
Today, publishers are under significant pressures to generate more novel content, at a faster rate than their competition. With large amounts of what happens in the world being captured by 'users' and shared on social channels, it's reasonable for publishers to adopt an editorial model that appropriates UGC. This, however, comes with the caveats and pitfalls of necessary authentication and verification which, when forgone, can have grave consequences for the sake of swift news content generation.