The Wild West of Social Media: 7 Takeaways

Photo credit:; Gavin Rees (Dart Center), Aine Kerr (Storyful), Fergus Bell (ONA), Sam Dubberley (Eyewitness Media), Beth Colson (AP)

Pioneers from the frontiers of social media newsgathering and user-generated content (UGC) shared their wisdom at News:rewired’s ‘in focus’ event last week.

Below are my seven takeaways from “The Wild West of Social Media” panel event, featuring Aine Kerr, managing editor of StoryfulSam Dubberley, co-founder of Eyewitness Media HubGavin Rees, director, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and Beth Colson, head of international video news production, Associated Press.

I also live-blogged the event here.

1 Journalism is the same discipline, just with changing tools.

“A post, an image, a video is only just a piece of information on a platform, until you do traditional journalism. You still must apply who, what, when, where, how, why?”, said Aine Kerr.

2 “With UGC comes responsibility”.

Storyful’s mantra reminds us that sources should not be treated any differently just because they are uploaders, rather than callers.

3 Set and respect user engagement policies, to ensure your duty of care to UGC sources.

Take the conversation off the platform into direct messaging, email, or a phone call. Tell the user how you want to use their content, and make sure they understand. Ideally, give them a link so they can quickly read up how you are intending to use their content. AP’s head of international video news production Beth Colson said AP has developed their ‘legalese’ documentation into formats that can fit in a DM, making them clear and accessible.

4 “Eyewitness” typically means “traumatised”.

“If someone has seen a key moment in a story, chances are they’ve seen something traumatic”, says Beth Colson. “Think before you contact them, and remind them about their safety.” In the recent Oregon shooting, AP producers were told to wait until the police said the gunman was no longer on the loose before contacting eyewitnesses.

5 Vicarious trauma for journalists who watch UGC is a growing problem in newsrooms.

Trauma is experienced most strongly when there is no warning before the traumatic UGC is viewed; beware autoplay features on video players.

6 Combat vicarious trauma with better newsroom practices.

Trauma is a dose-related problem; at a low-volume, humans are surprisingly resilient. Workflow steps can prevent traumatic content being viewed without warning, and rostering staff between hard news and soft news lightens the dose. Green counters trauma; have green computer wallpaper and a pot plant on your desk. Share your concerns with your colleagues; distress hampers our ability to process complex information, and “unspoken distress in newsrooms can impact the way journalists collaborate with each other”, said Rees.

7 News organisations can legitimately refuse to distribute “newsworthy” traumatic content.

“Because”, said Rees, “content such as an ISIS video is like a press release from a company trying to sell its product. Journalists aren’t expected to send out every press release companies give them.”

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