Tow Fellows Travel To Myanmar for UGC Research

The majority of journalism research, particularly high profile frequently cited research, focuses on practices within the UK and US news industries. In our current project – a study into the ways in which photographs and videos filmed by eyewitnesses are used by newsrooms – we wanted to ensure we didn’t fall into the trap of assuming that patterns at the large English speaking newsrooms represent global practices.

So as well as including in our sample of eight 24 hour news channels, non-English speaking newsrooms based outside London and New York, we have actively sought interviews with journalists from a range of countries. While Skype has been invaluable, we also knew we had to find ways to reach those parts of the world where an unprompted impersonal email is unlikely to end in success. So we decided to attend the East-West Center International Media Conference in Yangon, Myanmar last week.

We suspected there would be quite a range of attendees, and we were right. We were able to speak to a wide variety of editors from across the region.  We interviewed the Waziristan bureau chief of Dawn TV in Pakistan who recognises the use of UGC to help him cover stories on his conflict-torn region.  For his channel, there are clear guidelines to use UGC because of the difficulty of verification – and the need to get it right.  Their system of verification focussed very much on working as a team across their bureaux to fact-check.  He was also very aware of the need for trauma training.

As for many other channels, the Baghdad correspondent of Radio Free Iraq UGC to help him tell the stories for which no other pictures existed.  He said that, without UGC, there was no way he could tell the story of Syria to his audience. Crediting, however, was not an issue for him, as he guiltily admitted Iraq has no sufficient copyright law to stop him using the content.  Reciprocity of use between organisations was crucial to ensure continued use.

We also talked to Maria Ressa from Rappler, an incredible example of a newsroom where collaboration with the audience is at the core of their news-gathering and storytelling. They actively train people across the Philippines in journalism practices, and they draw frequently on their output. They also scour social networks looking for original stories and eyewitness accounts. The importance placed on training was impressive to say the least, particularly how to use audience content ethically.

We also interviewed Byron Perry, the founder of Coconuts Media, a network of local city websites in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore. They rely heavily on UGC, but as many news organisations find, often straggle to encourage people to send content straight to them, finding that people are more likely to upload to their favourite social network. Like many of our interviewees he was honest about the mistakes that can occur when it comes to seeking permission and crediting under pressure, and the training new staff receive about handling UGC.

The title of this conference was the Challenges of a Free Press – fascinating for a country that, in the past two years, has emerged from half a century of military dictatorship, a military dictatorship in which all dissent or public opinion was repressed.  With this opening up to the wider world (we didn’t even have to apply for visas ahead of travelling to Yangon, purchasing them simply at the border) has come immense challenges.  One of the conferences keynote speakers was Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, who noted that Myanmar has had to understand the internet in two years, as opposed to the 20 the rest of the world has had.

This trip was therefore a real chance to discover and listen to the challenges Myanmar is facing in this accelerated development while, at the same time, trying to assist and give advice where possible.  To this end, Sam appeared on a panel at the conference with Alan Soon of Yahoo! Asia, Maria Ressa and Asha Phillips of the social media news agency Storyful, to discuss the challenges of using UGC.

This gave us an opportunity to present the findings of the first, quantitative phase of our research – as well as discuss some of the requirements of verification and the responsibilities journalists have when integrating UGC into their output. The first report will be published very soon, but there was huge surprise and interest in the crediting aspect of UGC.

The first phase of our research demonstrated that UGC is used by most broadcasters on a daily basis – both on air and online. The data also showed that broadcasters are poor in telling their audiences that the content is UGC and who it came from. In our sample of eight news channels analysed over three weeks, 81% of the UGC content used by the broadcasters did not credit the person who had filmed the footage or taken the photograph.

Now that we are in the qualitative phase it will be interesting for us to discuss these finding with news managers and editors of the channels we analysed. In the interviews we have conducted so far (although it’s important to note that only one of the interviewees was from one of the 8 channels we analysed), many of the managers were adamant that their organisation verifies and credits all UGC it uses, that they have guidelines and that, on many occasions, senior editors have to sign off before journalists use uncertain content. These claims were certainly not supported by the quantitative research.

After Myanmar and our now wider understanding of how UGC is used in a wide variety of different newsrooms, we are progressing with our interviews. Editors of the channels we analysed are next on our list, as well as the news agencies as we realise just how much UGC is distributed by them and the different challenges that creates in the processing and use of eyewitness footage.


Claire Wardle and Sam Dubberley are Tow Fellows working on the Tow Center’s AMATEUR FOOTAGE: A Global Study of User Generated Content in TV News Output at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.  The Single-Subject News Network is a project made possible by generous funding from both The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The goal of AMATEUR FOOTAGE: A Global Study of User Generated Content in TV News Output is a global study into the integration of User Generated Content (UGC) in news output in television broadcasts and online. Follow Claire Wardle on Twitter @cward1e and follow Sam Dubberley on Twitter @samdubberleyTo learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen: