Television news is adopting user-generated content (UGC) enthusiastically, as more eyewitnesses to events come armed with mobile phones and digital cameras. Yet it raises the question of how far into the news agenda this kind of audience input can go.
This is not to underplay the influence of UGC. The ‘citizen journalist’has been an integral part in telling headline news, from the Glasgow Airport terror attack to the July flooding. But so far it has been largely confined to the provision of images, to which editorial then puts the words.
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Now ITV News has launched a service designed to allow viewers to have their say on the big news stories of the day. Uploaded allows members to send in video clips of themselves giving their views on a hot topic chosen by the news team.
ITV ran a pilot for a number of months with what it calls a foundation group of 100 citizen correspondents, trialling the technology before its official launch on 30 July. Last week the scheme was trailed in the ITV national lunchtime bulletins and garnered 1,300 responses to the website. None of the citizen contributors is paid for their uploading.
To some, the project is reminiscent of the old-fashioned way of asking the public for its opinion: vox pops. ITV news editor Deborah Turness is aware of the comparison and is keen to stress both the rigorous nature of the compiling process and her belief that a higher quality commentary will emerge from Uploaded.
She is also adamant on what Uploaded was not intended to be: ‘What I didn’t want is ‘the white man in a van’ effect – this is not to be a rant box.”
The point, says Turness, was to create a platform where ‘thoughtful and intelligent people’could offer depth and diversity to programmes and bring the broadcaster’s reports closer to the make-up of British society.
To combat the threat of Uploaded turning into the dreaded rant box, the foundation group was set up and pilots conducted to test both the technology and whether the participants could offer the depth and diversity the broadcaster was looking for.
At Broadcast magazine’s ‘The Future of News’conference last month, three of the foundation’s star pupils were wheeled on. They ticked all the equal opportunities boxes and were articulate and opinionated. The theory goes that if you are motivated enough to record a video clip and send it in, you are less likely to descend into ranting. Or if you are going to rant, you will at least have given some thought to what it is you are venting your spleen about.
But as a further safeguard, five staff from ITN’s multiplatform content producer ITN On manage the system to ensure each clip meets compliance standards; no outrageous, dangerous, libellous or racist comment gets through.
Turness says that three years ago, TV news started realising the potential power of pictures supplied by people. Her experience of this is first-hand: she was the ITN editor who bought ‘the single most expensive UGC’clip in this country – the footage of arrests for the 21/7 bombings. This kind of UGC is now an important part of mainstream news content.
Turness sees a distinction in the ITV project. What has gone before – pictures and video footage of news events sent from members of the public – was UGC phase one. Phase two uses the same technology to garner people’s views and engage them in debate.
The rationale is simple: TV news as much as any part of traditional media is constantly warned of the dangers of losing the youth and ethnic minority audiences – groups that are finding different ways of communicating outside the mainstream media. Turness says that mainstream news has been negligent in bringing in those audiences.
‘If we don’t somehow pull them back, we will lose a lot of people for good,’she says. ‘Other TV genres have adapted and become two-way streets, but news is still one-way.”
The move is indicative of a social shift, says Turness – a kind of ‘awakening of consciousness’that has happened globally as people begin to understand that the world is a connected place, and are getting to grips with the part they play in the greater global structure. ‘I just want to reflect some of that shift in our programmes,’says Turness.
While ITV News is about its eyewitness reporting, she adds, it can still find room in a half-hour news slot for other, informed views.
With the foundation group, the broadcaster now has a ready-made network of ‘correspondents’dotted throughout the country. Surely the next step would be to use them when a news story breaks in their locality?
Turness says the broadcaster’s Caught on Camera section of the Uploaded site already allows people to send in video or mobile footage.
‘We will never phone somebody and ask them to go and film. That’s not what Uploaded is about,’she says. ‘At the moment, we’re not looking at Uploaded as a news-gathering tool or as a database from which to gather case studies. It’s a giant people bank of correspondents across the UK.”
For now, Uploaded is an opinion gatherer. Correspondents are sent a daily email once the editorial team has decided upon a topic for comment. This might be mid-morning rather than first thing, to allow time for a story to develop so the team can see how the ITV News bulletins tackle it, before contacting the correspondents with this angle in mind.
If the clips are of good enough quality, they might make a 120-second slot at the end of the story on one of the ITV news bulletins.
The next phase of Uploaded, however, might just take it in the direction of being a news-gathering tool. The project is to be launched worldwide, with a number of people in certain countries being recruited to set up ‘danger zone diaries”. Diarists are planned for Zimbabwe, Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan. They will have a space on the site for their blog and/or video.
This phase is due for launch in early 2008.
‘As and when there’s a story, we would probably ask, ‘what’s the latest from inside the country?”says Turness.
The inspiration for this phase came in part from the Baghdad-based ITV video diarist Ali Hamdani, who posted ‘A Year of Living Dangerously’before fleeing Iraq.
The power of using UGC as more than just a video producer becomes apparent here. ‘In that case, its quite a good news-gathering tool,’says Turness. ‘It’s a way of adding layers to our news-gathering capacity there, and can form part of our coverage plan for our story.”