The news industry is constantly changing, and in the last few years, User Generated Content (UGC) has become a ubiquitous feature in news sourcing and packaging. However, media houses and journalists need to establish verification and credibility safeguards to avoid the misinformation trap.
In July 2020, Tanzania’s late President John Pombe Magufuli’s administration prohibited journalists from covering the Covid-19 pandemic without government approval.
As a result, ordinary citizens’ photos, video footage, and stories posted on social media by activists and medical professionals gave the rest of the world a picture of what was happening in Tanzania.
Media outlets from all over the continent and the world relied on those user-generated photos and videos when reporting the virus outbreak in the East African nation.
Earlier this year, a TikTok user in Kenya recorded a Zimbabwean diplomat being harassed by boda boda riders in Nairobi (they claimed she had hit one of them with her car).
The bystander shared the video on his TikTok handle, and within a few hours, the clip had gone viral. All TV networks and news websites picked it. The following day, Kenyan newspapers printed screen grabs of the incident alongside the story.
Of course, cases such as these are not new and are part of everyday newsroom conversations. What is new, however, is the conversation around the ethics of handling user-generated content (UGC).
In journalistic circles, UGC is the usable and newsworthy material created by members of the public. It can be distributed on various mediums such as social media (Facebook posts, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc.). It can also be shared in closed community forums like WhatsApp and Facebook groups. This usually happens before such material is picked up by journalists and turned into content that eventually ends up consumed by the masses on radio, TV, newspaper articles, podcasts, website articles and even blogs.
According to Edna Mubiru, a content manager at Vision Group in Uganda, credibility is critical when handling user-generated content.
“All User Generated Content is taken through a rigorous fact-checking process, and the right of reply is given where it is due,” Mubiru told the EAST Site.
She said such a process ensures that context is built around the content and all parties are well represented. “My team is expected to treat UGC content as tips for follow-up,” she said, adding that technological advances have made altering information easier and that people can manipulate content to fit a specific agenda.
“Even as we aim for speed, the team is expected to collaborate within itself so that any UGC content is checked for accuracy and certified as being in proper journalistic condition before we release it to the public,” she wrote in an email interview.
She further explained that there is a need to re-think certain newsroom practices to accommodate UGC.
“As content gathering and sharing becomes more liberalised and gets into the hands of people without journalism training, newsrooms have to find a home for that content on their platforms,” Mubiru explained. “Vision Group runs a Citizen Journalism segment on the Vision Group App, which is available on Google Play Store. This was done to create a structure to accommodate UGC,” she reckoned.
“We have a person moderating the content to ensure that speed of follow-up is quick enough to get the entire context around the content but also keep the users engaged with our platforms.”
She said the Vision Group also has a bulletin that, in the beginning, depended on several stringers that were not New Vision affiliated but could share reports.
The success of Agataliiko Nfufu – a Ugandan bulletin – is one good example. According to Mubiru, with the right fast-moving teams, media houses can use the correct journalistic principles to turn around a lot of UGC.
Across the border, Nuzulack Dausen, a Tanzanian journalist, editor and CEO of Nukta Africa (a media platform), shares a similar opinion.
Review of editorial policies
“If we go against UGC, we are the ones who will be losing big time. Instead, newsrooms should review their editorial policies and accommodate UGC while pursuing them carefully,” Dausen told the EAST Site.
He said this transformation should be done by following all best practices when handling UGC, including verifying such shared information. “In the future, it will be even wise to incentivise users who contribute high-quality content that contributes to our revenue growth. This might sound crazy, but that is how we build a society that values truth and quality content without looking for fame through trending content,” he argued.
Nukta Africa, like most media houses, has its editorial policy regarding UGC to ensure that the need to be the first and the desire to scoop exclusive news pieces do not compromise its standards, including accuracy and fairness.
NuktaFakti (its fact-checking initiative), NuktaHabari (its data-driven website) and Nukta TV (its online TV) all have to adhere to strict journalistic codes of conduct and ethics even when dealing with UGC.
“Any information, photos or video, from citizen journalists or any other UGC, are first verified using digital tools and journalistic techniques. For instance, we do Google reverse image search to see if images are fake or taken out of context,” Dausen clarified.
According to him, such instances are common in Tanzania on many issues, including accidents or politics. “Secondly, in case we cannot verify quickly we run a quick content review of the person who has published the content to see if the quality of the content they post on social media is usually legitimate. We also contact him or her for further clarification on the content in question and obtain their permission to publish and credit the material.”
In-house editorial policies
Kenya’s digital media platform Tuko News is well known for relying heavily on UGC.
“In a largely digital media house, a fairly good percentage of our content is user generated,” Julia Majale, the managing editor at Tuko said. She told the EAST Site that most of their UGC is sourced on social media.
“The editor no longer has to send out reporters or writers to source for stories. The stories find their way into our newsrooms from our audience. Editors have had to acknowledge this and work with this content,” she said.
This bottom-up, as opposed to the usual top-down approach, when handling audience participation in the newsroom is a by-product of the prominence UGC plays in news industry activities. It has affected how Tuko approaches and employs user-generated content in the newsroom.
“The audience appreciates content generated from normal people just like them. They consider such items relatable and true. Therefore, Tuko has added this kind of content in our strategy to cater for this particular audience,” Majale said, adding that such stories usually bring more clicks since the audience that relates to it gives excellent feedback and shares their stories in return.
Regarding its impact on the professional conduct and ethics of the team, Tuko has had to develop some strict rules to apply when handling UGC content. “For starters, no one can work on a story of a non-celebrity or someone who is not a public figure without their consent. As practice, we expect our people to seek consent from the source of the story, and this applies to all the stories sourced on social media.”
Verification and Safeguards
Majale said there is no policy document at Tuko detailing how to handle UGC, but there are some procedures all editors must go through before approving content for publication. For example, they must seek consent (only post a story if they are authorised to do so by the person who shared the story), verify facts against the claims in any UGC, and communicate potential risks. In addition, the editors are expected to beware of possible lies/exaggerations (so no taking everything as hard truth). If a topic is sensitive, the editor should notify the community manager/Social Media Manager to monitor the comments section under it to deal with issues like bullying.
At Kenyans.co.ke, analysing meta-data in photos and videos is deployed to ascertain their authenticity. They also use geospatial analytics for the same purpose.
“Those two measures help us ensure we don’t run fake video footage and images. At the same time, all the other measures like fact-checking, follow-up phone calls, right of reply and corroboration from at least two independent sources are used,” Robert Ndungu, the managing director at Kenyans.co.ke told East Site. He said this helps guarantee that content quality is up to standard.
Safety and Security concerns
Regarding the security of sources, Robert’s team knows that under journalistic ethics and code of conduct, they have to protect their sources and seek permission from the individual before running the news item.
Likewise, Julia Majale of Tuko News knows the dangers that lie in UGC when it comes to security and safety. “At Tuko we have had cases where we were forced to pull down stories after they went viral, and there was potential harm towards the sources/subjects due to the sensitive nature of the content,” Majale said.
“We usually urge journalists to explain to the sources we get on social media of the potential risk, so they are aware before signing away consent and later blaming it on the journalist,” She added.
A journalist from BBC Africa based in their Nairobi office who spoke to East Site on condition of anonymity said journalists need to handle UGC just as they would handle a news story they filmed.
“If children are involved, there are guidelines for that. If it’s an issue of gender-based violence, there is a way to handle the victims if the content will be broadcast,” the BBC reporter said. He further stressed that the journalist must highlight the issue without putting the victim at more risk of stigma/backlash or being identified and hence losing their job or facing threats.
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