How is user-generated content transforming storytelling?
We spoke to George Sargent, acting global head of UGC newsgathering at Reuters.
Last October, user-generated content (UGC) helped journalists piece together the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The Las Vegas shooting killed 58 and wounded hundreds more. During the horrific attack, members of the public live-streamed and shared content on social media, even while taking cover from bullets.
“We had lots of videos of people running for their lives as the attack was happening. That's when the UGC team really came into its own,” says George.
What is UGC?
UGC can be defined simply as any video or images that are taken by non-professional camera operators. Here is a rundown of the UGC that shaped 2017:
Prior to the emergence of UGC, George argues that media coverage of events, such as the Las Vegas attack, would have likely been limited to police ticker tape, static images of ambulances and interviews with witnesses.
“It wouldn't have been at the very moment when it happened,” explains Sargent. “I think to really understand the event fully you have to watch the eyewitness videos and hear the eyewitness accounts.”
Since 2014, the UGC team has transformed the newsgathering process by playing an active and reactive role in breaking news situations, as well as finding viral content.
“I think to really understand the event fully you have to watch the eyewitness videos and hear the eyewitness accounts.”
The team consists of social media producers in London, Gdynia, Beirut, Mexico City, Beijing and Singapore, who are dedicated to sourcing, verifying and clearing UGC.
Finding & monitoring the news
Reuters News Tracer, a custom built product for Reuters journalists, helps spot clusters of words that are shared on Twitter. It provides its journalists anywhere from an 8- to 60-minute head start.
The UGC team also use platforms such as CrowdTangle and TweetDeck to create custom lists with keyword searches. Other tools used include, Google Street View, Exif data sites, satellite imagery and historical weather reports.
The verification process
Verification is a crucial part to the newsgathering process, particularly in a time when trust in the media is on the decline.
In the latest Reuters report, Bias, Bullshit and Lies, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism researchers found that social media (24 percent) is trusted less than the news media in its ability to separate fact from fiction.
According to Reuters Institute's annual digital news report, this is particularly worrying considering that more than one in ten (14 percent) now cite social media as their main source for news.
Sargent’s team regularly tackle “fake news”. Being inherently suspicious and questioning a source’s agenda is part of the verification process.
“When you’re searching for social media content you see a lot of stuff which is old and you’ll see a lot of stuff that is pretending to be something it's not.” explains George Sargent.
Clearing UGC can require many hours of gaining a source’s trust. Last December, during anti-government unrest in Iran, content shared online was being deleted and sources were being detained.
“I remember that I opened my laptop at 7pm and didn't close it until nearly 3am all for the sake of getting this video,” recounted Sargent.
He added, “It was very painstaking but very worthwhile. We have to put the hard yards in so that the clients can get material and know that it's real and know that they can use it.”
Looking to the future, Sargent says that, “to cover stories properly, journalists will have to go on to social media to do their newsgathering. In 20 years time I suspect we'll all be multimedia journalists and we'll be very adept at social media newsgathering.”
The interview is edited for length and clarity.
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