User generated content and public service broadcasting

This has also been published on the Public Service Broadcasting Forum

Between summer 2007 and 2008, I led a knowledge exchange research project, examining the use of user-generated content at the BBC. The research was co-funded by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the objectives were to understand: how user-generated content was being used across BBC news; who submitted user-generated content and their motivations; and the barriers for those that did not submit content. The final report can be found here, but in this post, I want to explore the public service dimensions of user-generated content and how the rise of social media fits into the equation.

User-generated content has always been, and remains a terrible phrase because it simplifies a vast range of behaviours, but is used as a way of describing any type of material created by the audience. Our research identified five different types of user-generated content, and we argued that the catch-all term prevents a more interesting discussion of the subject. (The problem is no worthy alternative has appeared. Our attempt at ‘audience material’ was not quite right either).

We identified five main types of ‘user-generated content’:

  1. Audience content (breaking news footage, first-hand experiences)
  2. Audience comment (opinion and discussion about a news story)
  3. Collaborative content (journalism created between reporters and the audience, e.g. digital stories, community reporters etc)
  4. Networked journalism (heavy reliance on external expertise being shared on blogs and forums)
  5. Non-news content (pictures of snowmen!)

One of the main findings from the research was an acknowledgment that the ‘audience’ has always been involved in output, from letters to the editor, phone calls to radio call-in shows, to amateur footage of breaking news events. As many older journalists were quick to remind us, user-generated content in the way it was being used at the BBC, does not represent a revolution within journalism, it’s just the term ‘user-generated content’ makes it appear new and different.

While this point of view is a valid one, it is, however, difficult to believe that there was almost no user-generated content in the news coverage of the 9/11 attacks. By the London bombings, this had changed substantially, and it was the first major news event where user footage was included alongside user-generated content output. At that point the BBC had recently launched their user-generated content hub, which was a central area for gathering pictures, emails and texts from the audience, so it could be shared across the organisation. Five years on, it is the norm to expect amateur footage of a breaking new story.

The user-generated content hub situated at the heart of the BBC’s multimedia newsroom is a fascinating case study of a news organisation taking seriously material submitted by the audience. Our research showed that through moderating the Have Your Say message boards the hub journalists were constantly looking for story suggestions and case studies. This active newsgathering, significantly, was never transmitted to the audiences. The BBC was taking this material very seriously but audiences didn’t know this, which was a shame. By signaling the importance being placed on this material, it might have encouraged more people to become involved.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the research was the exploration of who submitted user-generated content and their motivations for doing so or not. In December 2007, 72 percent if the UK population had never contacted a news organisation on any platform (17 percent had contacted a newspaper, 9 percent a radio call-in show and 4 percent an online news site). As you would expect those who had were overwhelmingly white, educated and middle class, and very heavy news users. They were also defined as ‘activists’, i.e. they had previously written letters to MPs or been members of local organisations.

When we did focus groups to examine the barriers for wider participation, there were a range of answers, but the most common were a feeling that a) they didn’t know enough about a topic (the three topics which always receive the most contributions are weather, pets and sports – issues which people feel passionately about but which there is little expectation of specialist knowledge); b) there was no reason to do so if it wasn’t going to be taken seriously, i.e. “If the prime minister was reading the message boards I would be more likely to get involved” and c) a lack of understanding that the BBC would need story suggestions (“I’ve seen the news, I know how many journalists there are. They know about everything that’s happening in my community and if they don’t cover it, it’s because they don’t care”).

All of this is very interesting in terms of public service broadcasting. If we return to the five types of user-generated content above, it is ‘collaborative content’ which is the most powerful form, but it is extremely resource heavy. Only a public broadcaster could invest time empowering audiences in terms of training them up with concrete media skills, or working jointly to tell stories from particular communities.

When we talked to people who had been involved in the digital storytelling projects in Wales, it was evident the scale of the impact on their lives. A week working with BBC journalists had provided important new digital skills, but more importantly raised self-esteem levels and empowered people to do different things with their lives. The quality of the final projects resulted in high quality content for the BBC.

However, when measuring resources versus impact, the user-generated content hub receiving 12,000 pictures a day registered highly in terms of the content received versus journalistic output, whereas a week-long intervention in the south Wales valleys was expensive to produce and only involved small numbers of people. The bottom line is that it is impossible to measure the wider impacts of those collaborative projects in the community more generally. Even the most powerful qualitative data will always struggle against statistics.

The research was published in the summer of 2008. It’s now mid-2010, and it is astounding to me how out of date the research seems in many ways. The astonishing rise of social media has meant the way the BBC interacts with the audience has changed quite fundamentally. The user-generated content hub continues to thrive and the BBC still receives emails and photographs everyday but there has been a significant shift. The amount of content flowing to the BBC via the official  user-generated content channels has decreased as people are now much more likely to share breaking news footage with friends (and a wider audience) via youtube, flickr, facebook or twitter. One of the barriers people spoke about (“I don’t know enough to comment on a BBC site”) disappears when you’re setting up or commenting on a facebook page related to the news story of the day. Similarly, the user-generated content black hole which the BBC faced (people taking time to send in a photo or comment to the BBC and seeing it never used), disappears when your friends immediately comment, like or share what you have posted.

As a result, the BBC is now spending more time on these social media sites, looking for story suggestions, case studies and breaking news footage. I designed a one-day training course to support BBC journalists in doing this. For a short time, I struggled with the idea of training journalists how to use sites such as facebook, caught up with the idea of these as private spaces, even if they were technically public. Very quickly however, I realised how journalists were connecting with a much broader spectrum of people – people who did not normally connect with the BBC. Previously the BBC would add a ‘post-form’ to the bottom of their online articles and ask people to get in touch. That type of reactive newsgathering meant the BBC was getting suggestions and materials from a very small section of the population. By being proactive and getting into the spaces where the audience is spending more of its time, it is broadening its sources, the types of stories it tells and how it tells them.

Being honest, this social newsgathering, while an improvement, is still very much about power resting with the BBC journalists to take the material and to make a story with it. It is still very much in the model of user-generated content as it has always been. The news organisation sets the agenda, and then sees whether the public can add any material or opinion, which it will then try to integrate with the ‘polished’ material they have created.

The aim is for the BBC to move in the direction of social news production, exploring ways in which these social platforms can help the BBC produce the highest quality journalism in partnership with the audience. That is quite a leap for any news organisation, but the BBC are well-placed, and because of their funding structure, have a responsibility to be leading the way in this type of journalism.

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