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User-Generated Is As User-Generated Does

(CBS/PHOTODISC)
User-generated content, the holy grail of the new media world for some, is getting a serious lift across the pond. According to a report in The Guardian, the BBC will soon begin paying for some content submitted by users (hat tip, Media Bistro). That the BBC is going down the road of potentially making everyone a freelance journalist is not an insignificant step. From the Guardian:
New guidelines tell BBC staff they can make payments to members of the public who send in footage from mobile phones or cameras, but "audiences should not be encouraged to think that payment is the norm".

The new guidelines on paying for content are a departure for the BBC.

More:
The new editorial policy guidelines state: "Material is submitted to the BBC under published terms and conditions. These give us a free, non-exclusive licence to publish on any platform, and the person who took the footage/pictures retains copyright.

"However, on very rare occasions where material is particularly editorially important or unique and depicts something of great significance, we may consider making an appropriate payment.

Plenty of news organizations accept and even post user-generated content, mostly in areas walled-off from the rest of the news. On the surface, paying for pictures or video is only fair if a news organization wants to use such images -- freelancers and stringers are an integral part of the business, after all. To extend that network to anyone with a camera phone or digital camera (basically everyone) makes sense. You can't always get your vetted professionals to the immediate scene of news, but you can bet someone is capturing the images so why not tap into that?

But there is a reason user-generated content is almost always carefully segmented – authenticity. When a site like CBSNews.com uses a picture or video from a stringer, freelancer or news services like the Associated Press, there is a high level of comfort that the material is being legitimately represented – that it is what it claims to be. Of course, we've seen plenty of cases where even those sources are called into question. Are freelance photographers who they claim to be? Do those taking the pictures understand what they're seeing? Remember all those controversies of the past?

There is a certain level of trust involved in taking any material at face-value, but for the most part, organizations have built that up over time. What happens when news organizations begin to receive content from sources they've never dealt with before? How can they be verified? It may be tempting to tap into the vast number of potential citizen journalists out there but it's also worth remembering that everyone with a digital camera also has access to some pretty fancy editing equipment as well, not to mention the capability to stage images.

Back in the day, Hollywood presented Forrest Gump in conversation with President Kennedy and it was hailed as special effects magic. These days, however, a skilled Photoshop user can generate images even more convincing. When news organizations begin offering financial incentive for user-generated content, they add to the potential for manipulated or staged pictures getting passed off as genuine. Let's hope press outlets are as busy beefing up their standards as they are their networks of citizen journalists.

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