The unexplored benefits of user-generated content

By Rayana Zapryanova

The need for journalists to use user-generated content has become greater now that they cannot reach certain places because of lockdowns or because they don’t have the capacity to tell certain stories. 

In some form or another, news organisations worldwide use this type of content – from viral videos to memes. After all, viral content gets clicks. Memes about Bernie Sanders’ appearance at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden featured in much news coverage.

Gabriela Gruszynski Sanseverino is a Jolt researcher whose work focuses on the Politics and Ethics of User-Generated Content (UGC) in Journalism. 

While doing her research, Gabriela studied eighty news websites from eight different countries. She focused on how news websites are using UGC (if at all), what resources they had, their presence on social networks, and what they did in general when it came to public participation. She then conducted an in-depth analysis of sixteen exemplary news websites and a cross-national comparative study of the news organisations. 

Only about ten of them, she said, have spaces that allow participation from users that goes beyond the standard share buttons. The websites that do allow such participation usually depend on it: the public financially supports them through memberships and crowdsourcing, and giving them a space to have their say seems like a fair exchange. 

Gabriela has also found a hierarchy between the journalistic content and the content produced by the media’s users. The latter tends to be used as a marketing tool indicating how the public are included, but public participation doesn’t necessarily feature in more meaningful output.

In many cases, news websites are abandoning comment sections or outsourcing their management. This is primarily due to the difficulty of moderating content including hate speech and spam. Such content stands in contrast to the meaningful public discussions the Internet optimists once dreamed about.

According to Gabriela, news outlets are missing out on opportunities to increase storytelling through public participation. She believes user-generated content makes for richer stories and presents stories from angles we usually wouldn’t consider. That storytelling opportunity can be seen in the news sites that encourage participation

It would be beneficial if media outlets give people voices beyond vox pops and interviews. If they verify and implement user-generated content more frequently, it gives them a whole other platform and level to that information.

In general, Gabriela has noticed that a committed effort for using UGC in storytelling is rare in journalism, especially with legacy news outlets. It is more common with digital news natives, as well as those with less funding and smaller newsrooms that have to rely on people outside the newsroom for their stories. 

When something is happening in a community, some media outlets that use UGC make the effort to find people who are experiencing it first-hand, to help tell the story. 

One example Gabriela gives is the unique way The Intercept Brasil covered several situations during the pandemic, such as the water shortages in one of the poorer districts of  São Paulo. They had one of the people who lived in the community capture with a cellphone what was happening from his perspective. They later edited the video and published it on their Instagram account, where this community’s narrative, which would often go untold, could be viewed by The Intercept Brasil ‘s one million followers

Another example is the coverage of the riots at the US Capitol earlier this year when people sent recordings of what was happening to newsrooms. In some cases, this user-generated content was the only way people could see what was happening.

A third example Gabriela cites is the 2020 explosion in Beirut. Sometimes there simply aren’t journalists who can film what’s happening because they can’t get to a location fast enough. That’s when they have to rely on the public.

These moments of crisis are profoundly common, Gabriela said, and we have seen their impact on a historical level such as the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, the tsunami in Japan in 2004 and the London bombings in 2005, just to cite a few examples.

When the unexpected happens, now civilians have the opportunity to capture it and become our eyes on the ground. So many of them have quite literally recorded history. During crises or unexpected events, there is often someone with a smartphone on the ground to record it and show us what happens.

Though journalists are incredible at creating an image with words, there is a reason why the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is so famous. This type of UGC is the most remembered, though rarely the most commonly used by the news media, because it’s the one that allows us to see – with our own eyes – and experience someone else’s perspective.

“The truth is,” Gabriela says, “journalism is reinventing itself – it’s in a crisis. The business model no longer works. We are working with paywalls, with subscriptions, with memberships, with funding. We are trying a thousand ways to see if we can make it work. And at the end of the day, the one certain thing is that the public is a central part – that relationship is the basis of journalism. And user-generated content becomes more and more important because the public wants to see itself represented in journalistic storytelling. And those experiences add more dimensions to journalism. Before the pandemic, that was something that was implemented more actively, and the public responded to [seeing itself represented].”

Currently, Gabriela is hoping to interview more people within newsrooms to understand whether and when they try to include UGC in their news stories. Arising from her research, she is producing a podcast episode that discusses the implementations and possible applications of user-generated content. The podcast will also cover the best ways media actors can use such content and where it would be the most applicable; for example, in small newsrooms user-generated content can be especially useful. She is also writing a book chapter on digital journalism in Latin America with other Jolt researchers and presenting an upcoming paper with fellow Jolt researchers Marc Gorriz Blanch and Mathias Felipe de Lima Santos on automated illustrations and drawing images from ideas.

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This project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska Curie grant agreement No 765140