How is citizen journalism transforming the BBC’s Newsroom practices?

User-generated content offers new ways of covering ‘black hole’ stories such as the Syrian conflict. But how do journalists make sense of what is happening on the ground? 

Lisette Johnston
8 January 2016

Artist's impression of the 'Houla Massacre'. Credit: Flickr/Surian Soosay

We are living in a digital world. The BBC, as the world’s biggest broadcaster, has had to adapt to that world, particularly across social and mobile platforms. That evolution looks set to continue as the ways audiences consume news changes, and breaking news is one of the best examples of this. During November’s Paris attacks, 80% of those accessing the BBC News’ updates and livestreams from the website were doing so via mobile. 

There has been an increase in what Stuart Hughes calls ‘social media newsgathering’, with journalists scouring sites such as Facebook and Twitter for content, commentary and contributors, and this has been well documented. What has been examined less is how these digital relationships work, and how BBC journalists are engaging with people creating content found and distributed online.

While working as a senior producer for BBC World News TV in 2012, I was awarded a PhD scholarship from City University to study how user-generated content (UGC) has been used by the channel to cover the conflict in Syria, and also look at how journalistic practices have changed to incorporate UGC and activist voices into coverage. This remains key in the Syria conflict five years on, but the findings are also important and relevant for other news events from which it is challenging to report, either due to logistics or safety.

While Lyse Doucet, Paul Wood, Ian Pannell and Quentin Sommerville, among others, have provided amazing journalism from inside Syria they cannot be everywhere at once. My study found that limited access to the country has led to greater interaction with citizens and activists whose voices were marginalised at the start of the conflict in 2011. Media activists are now perceived to be akin to ‘correspondents’ by some news outlets, and news organisations’ relationships with them are evolving.

The current Syria conflict began in March 2011 and for the first six months foreign journalists were unable to enter the country. Since then, correspondents from the BBC and other organisations have sporadically been able to enter, yet the risks in doing so are high. The death of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin in Baba Amr in February 2012, and the beheading of US freelancer James Foley in October 2014, highlight how dangerous a Syria assignment can be. And it is getting more risky not less, with continued bombings, the rise of Islamic State and foreign airstrikes.

While journalists do still report across parts of the country, UGC is a vital storytelling tool, particularly where there are no journalistic ‘boots on the ground’. It could be footage of the aftermath of barrel bombing in Homs, or of the airstrikes in Idlib, which was distributed by media activists at the end of last year. These individuals are no longer just citizens but have become ‘produsers’ – both users and producers, and identifying what can, or should, be used from these sources, is a skill journalists have had to learn. All of those interviewed for the research said they had experienced a steep learning curve in developing new practices and measures to ensure non-BBC content could go to air. These ranged from becoming proficient at ‘verification’ processes using a variety of technologies and developing relationships with those providing the content.

BBC journalists were frequently in contact with groups such as the Local Co-ordinating Committees (LCCs) across Syria, and Shaam News Network. Many meetings began on Skype, or with BBC journalists tracing the owners of YouTube accounts who had uploaded content, in some cases via interaction on Facebook. Footage these groups filmed would be triangulated with reports from agencies and other source. Other relationships developed after BBC Arabic staff contacted people they trusted inside Syria. Conversations would snowball, resulting in journalists speaking with other ‘trusted’ individuals. In other situations, members of Syrian diaspora in the UK helped locate individual activists via phone, e-mail and social media. 

Staff also found that activist groups became more organised by cataloguing content posted on social media. For example, the LCCs provide both English and Arabic descriptions of  the videos uploaded on their Facebook page, and their content has frequently been proved to be accurate. This means, certain groups’ footage, contributors and intelligence have been used more regularly by the BBC. BBC staff said they did try to engage with Syrians from across different groups, and there was an active effort to get pro-Assad voices on air to try to balance coverage, particularly at the start of what has become a complex and fractured conflict. However, as time went on, civilians and government officials were either harder to research or unwilling to speak. Interviews with them, while welcome, are rare. Therefore activists, keen to engage, became regular voices, and relationships between them and BBC producers further developed. 

Journalists are nonetheless conscious that some of those sharing content are doing so along political lines, and may exaggerate reports of deaths or violence in a bid to highlight their cause. This raises questions of balance, and it is for the BBC journalist, using their learned skills, to try to make sense of it all. The high-profile hoaxes of the Syrian Hero Boy video, which turned out to be the work of a Scandinavian filmmaker, and the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ case, where a US-Syrian lesbian blogger was in fact an American man writing from Edinburgh University, highlight the challenges facing journalists reporting events in the region. 

Despite this, as the dangers inside Syria have grown, at times, so has the reliance on eyewitnesses. Amid fears about security of communication, journalists talked about a ‘duty of care’ to contributors, which might be another reason at times the voices on air have been predominantly activists. A ban on routinely calling satellite phones was imposed at the UGC Hub, the department which verifies eyewitness content, due to safety concerns. Skype is now the preferred medium for contacting people inside Syria. Producers use anonymous Gmail and Skype accounts which do not mention the BBC in a bid to ensure anonymous contributors will not be linked to the organisation.

The media landscape has undoubtedly become more collaborative and interactive, and audience participation at all levels is now a consideration for journalists who harvest content from websites, tweet the audience directly and encourage contributions to their programmes. While one cannot generalise, it seems the relationship between BBC journalists and people within Syria has changed throughout the course of the conflict with journalists in many ways acting more like a facilitators of news coming out of a journalistic black hole. With the rise of the Islamic State, and more 'produsers' than ever before, it looks likely that the BBC will have to continue developing these practices both in Syria and beyond.   

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