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AP Social Media-UGC Editor Fergus Bell on ethical, legal conundrums in the digital age

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AP Social Media-UGC Editor Fergus Bell on ethical, legal conundrums in the digital age

He spoke to the World Editors Forum about the complex and evolving ethical and legal challenges that journalists and editors in digital newsrooms face daily.

What are the biggest challenges with using UGC?

The biggest ethical challenges are focusing on the rights of the users, focusing on the rights of people creating this content. Looking at the industry as a whole, I think this ethical issue is going to become more prominent as we see more content being produced.

People are also starting to understand their own legal rights, they understand that they own that content, so I think that’s something that we need to address as an industry really quickly - how we deal with permissions and is it every ok to run something without permission?

The same with crediting – there are some arguments saying that it takes up screen space or people aren’t interested, but I think actually, as people have second screens and they want to go back and look at other material that that person may have captured, they want to see that crediting information. It serves for a more immersive experience, as well as being ethical to the person that created that content.

Also, as pressure comes to get content out quickly or to create content if you’re not there, I think one of the ethical conundrums is going to be the duty of care we have to these individuals. Is it ever right to ask them to go and film something? If they get injured or something happens to them, what is our duty of care to them? Are we responsible for them? As journalists, we’ve had training and experience, but asking someone to create something for us, it puts them out of their comfort zone, it puts them potentially in a dangerous situation, it potentially makes them take risks they’re unaware of. I think that comes down to working out your standards before you have to deal with it.

Do current legal obligations and restrictions further complicate these challenges?

We’re now at a point with UGC where we need to tackle the legal and ethical questions at the same time. What we can get away with legally is not necessarily what we can get away with ethically. As we chart an ethical course with UGC, we need to make sure that the ethics are considered perhaps before the law. The law is something that we can hide behind, but I don’t necessarily think we should.

For example, the issue of fair use - fair use has a range of different meanings depending on country. You can get away with a lot more in Australia for example under fair use, than you can in the UK. But UGC crosses borders – you’re accessing UGC from different parts of the world for different publications across the world. Therefore, the law is becoming something that is really, really difficult. We need to look at the law really closely as we move forward, to see where the conflicts are going to lie with the ethics.

It’s also really interesting to look at the laws surrounding verification. The more you verify something in a lot of countries, the more responsible you are for that content and for any mistakes or errors in that content, as a news organisation, even if you’re not the person who created. And you’re often more responsible than people who don’t verify. But ethically, that doesn’t mean we stop verifying. It means we should be verifying more and standing by it and being more confident of those techniques and standards.

So the legal question is very interesting but we absolutely can’t separate it from the ethical questions. Just because we can get away with something legally, doesn’t mean we should get away with it ethically, or could get away with it ethically … if it jeopardises the trust with the audience which is where the ethics comes in, then that’s going to be more damaging potentially.

Currently, who is more ethically and legally responsible should something go wrong in the process of generating or using UGC?  To what degree, if any, is there a duty of care towards these providers of UGC from the media organisations who source their content? Where do you draw the line?

On a personal level, I feel there is a duty of care when we’re dealing with citizen journalists. I feel they don’t necessarily know the risks they might be involved with. As journalists who are communicating with citizen journalists, we need to really take a step back and look what we might be asking of them and looking at the ramifications of using their content.

As an example, in Syria we were using live streaming UGC from several cities. On several occasions, we decided not to use the live streams from those individuals because their exact locations could be worked out and in a live situation that could have put them in danger and so we chose not to use them. That was where we decided that our duty of care to those individuals existed.

If there’s also content that we might use that makes someone look bad without them realising it or that in any way might take advantage of them and detract from the actual story, then I think we have a duty of care there. But that’s for every news organisation to work out for themselves what works for them depending on their region, the type of audiences they have, on their news agendas and cycles and the standards that they work to.

There’s 16 years worth of video uploaded to YouTube every day. There are so many different types of video, so many different types of people sharing content. The things you have to be mindful of are just so different … it has to be a conversation for each interaction. There can be basic guidelines, like don’t put someone in danger, don’t misrepresent someone, but it’s such a fast-changing area, that that’s really the only way to tackle it.

What is the way forward in navigating these ethical and legal conundrums? Can consistent guidelines for the media in dealing with these issues keep up with the ongoing advancements of crowdsourcing methods and technology?

I think that a set of standards and guidelines for the industry is a very big ask. At the moment, I’m personally not sure if it’s doable or if it should be done. I’m not sure everyone should necessarily be working in exactly the same way [but] I do think though that as an industry we might be able to reach some consensus on certain issues at their broadest level. For example, crediting individuals – I don’t necessarily say that we should say it should be done in one particular way, but I think individuals who are creating content being recognised, I think that might be a great thing that we can agree upon.

It’s a huge challenge to keep up to date with the speed of technology and the speed that things are changing editorially, and that’s exactly why Eric Carvin and I have headed up a UGC ethics working group for the Online News Association. Things like protecting sources as a journalist have been established over decades. They way we work with UGC and social media and the ethics involved with that haven’t had a chance to evolve over decades and find their place. That’s exactly why we thought we needed to get a group from across the industry together to stop every now and then and work out where we are, work out if there’s consensus and talk about the challenges we’re facing in order to find a way through that.

I think the next stage in looking at the ethics of UGC is to really look at the audience, too [and] what our responsibility to the audience is in terms of engaging in a dialogue with them and educating them about how we use their content. The only way we keep on top of it all is to keep the dialogues going.


Fergus Bell will be a speaker during the session Ethical conundrums in the digital age at the 13th International Newsroom Summit during World Publishing Expo on 13 and 14 October 2014, in Amsterdam.


Jessica Sparks


2014-09-25 13:29

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (, launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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