Screengrab/Twitter

Journalistic Principles, Ethics Less Important Than Social Clout and Revenue Goals?

By Derek Bowler

ith over two billion smartphones in pockets all over the world, the use of user-generated content has become an integral part of media organisations’ storytelling process. Where before images were sometimes unobtainable, or may have emerged hours after an event, footage is now reaching social platforms in real time. The Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the terrorist attacks on Paris — all unfolded in front of us, with the help of eyewitnesses.

Many of these people are not journalists, or even media professionals, just individuals who happened to be in the right — or wrong — place when the event occurred.

With 600+ hours of footage being uploaded to social platforms every minute, news organisations are scrambling to deal with the ever-evolving social newsgathering process, in an effort to boost both output and revenue.

Having worked as a UGC-focused journalist for the past number of years, I’ve covered stories from across the globe; discovering, verifying and clearing content for use by the news organisations for which I have worked.

Many within the media industry suggest it is not “real journalism”; You often hear: “It’s just clicking refresh on YouTube all day.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

With online or social media journalism, it still takes all the same journalistic skills to be able to stand over a piece of content, to know it is legitimate and the owner has given the proper permission for its use.

Few are properly trained in these techniques, and with many news organisations unwilling to invest in the area of social newsgathering, mistakes and breaches of journalistic ethics and standards are made at crucial times, causing irreparable damage to news organisations’ reputations, and the journalistic community as a whole.

Getting it wrong

On Friday, February 3, 2017, Paris was thrown into chaos in what was described as a “serious public security incident” after a soldier opened fire on a man armed with a machete outside the Louvre museum. Immediately, newsrooms across the world began combing the social web for content.

Twitter/VoiceB0xx

Like many other journalists and organisations, I began to make contact with social media users uploading content from the scene. One of the more prominent pieces was a video posted by Twitter user @voiceb0xx, showing the scene outside the Louvre. A quick message to the user saw him confirm ownership of the video and provide clearance for use.

Minutes later, RT France, the French wing of Kremlin-backed TV station Russia Today, posted the same video to its YouTube channel with the caption “Premières images après l’attaque devant le Louvre où des sirènes retentissent.”, crediting Twitter user @aschapire as the originator of the footage.

In his profile, Alejo Schapire describes himself as an Argentine journalist living in Paris. So it could be reasonable to think he might be the originator.

However, the narrator of the footage spoke with a strong American accent, which should be a big red flag. @voiceb0xx also had a consistent upload history of being in Paris the previous days, while @aschapire’s Twitter account showed a history of sharing uncredited content.

@voiceb0xx’s video remains on the RT France YouTube channel at the time of writing, credited to @aschapire. Aside from the incorrect courtesy, here the video is garnering clicks, likes and shares, while potentially adding to RT France’s subscriber base and possible revenue metrics — all from mistakes made in the newsgathering process.

Getting it wrong, again

During the attack on Düsseldorf’s main railway station on March 9, RT France again failed to correctly identify or verify the source of a prominent piece of content from the station, attributing it to Twitter user @lasernica.

In fact, @lasernica had informed news organisations, by tweeting publicly, that the image was a screenshot from a video which had been sent to him by a “friend,” — confirming that he was not the originator, and prompting the question: Did RT France even make contact with the uploader to verify ownership and seek permission for use prior to publishing?

Though many deemed my tweet calling RT France out so publicly over a journalistic mistake too much, it was liked (Twitter heart) by RT’s Head of Social Media.

The tweet by @RTenfrancais remains online at the time of writing, crediting @lasernica with the image.

The uploaders

Although responsibility lies with journalists and media organisations with regard to the publishing of social media content, some uploaders have an agenda — such as deceiving news organisations and the general public for social notoriety and financial gain.

Returning to the night of March 9, a Twitter account called @News_Executive, which claims to “bring you real time news from around the world. Always trying my best to bring you the most reliable & accurate exclusive”, began to share uncredited, unverified footage from the alleged scene in Düsseldorf.

Every day, this account shares unattributed tweets, images and videos from around the world — content which the user does not own, nor have permission to share. Yet, what is most worrying about the account is not its output, but its followers.

Some 22,000 people, including high-profile journalists from some of the biggest news organisations in the world, follow this account in the hope of seeing newsworthy content. No source, no verification, just a short cut to possible usable content. Why, as social media users and media professionals, are we giving credibility to an account that scrapes content from other users and institutions?

Many within the media industry will suggest they are following the account merely for a signal to news content, but this only serves to highlight the lack of investment in social media monitoring and, indeed, the need for upskilling social newsgathering teams by major news organisations.

Taking it, for the money

Last year, I released a mini-documentary about the unethical use of UGC by media organisations in Ireland, which uncovered the unauthorised use of social media content by Landmark Media Investments-owned website Benchwarmers.ie.

When I released the documentary, I had hoped it would resonate with the public and go some way to forcing Landmark and the Benchwarmers entity to rethink its newsgathering strategy. But even today, a brief look at Twitter will show how ambitious that was. The publication of “fake news” and copyright infringement is still rife on the webzine’s platforms.

However, there are two webzines that put Benchwarmers.ie in the shade in terms of copyright infringement: joe.ie and joe.co.uk, operating under the umbrella of Maximum Media.

Joe and its operation in the British market, Joe.co.uk, are sites that target a male audience aged 16–34. The sites use social media content to write mini-teaser blogs to generate a buzz around the brand online.

However, the sites also use copyrighted material from football matches, music videos, news bulletins, and major motion pictures, repackaging them to make them topical to news headlines, and share the videos natively across their platforms to generate revenue and brand publicity.

One of the biggest (accidental) viral hits of 2017 so far was the BBC’s interview with Prof. Robert Kelly, during which he was interrupted by his children live on air. Within seconds, the video was being shared everywhere. YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were all alight with screengrabs, TV recordings and mentions of the video.

As the interview took place live on a BBC broadcast, of course the copyright remained the BBC’s and, at the time, the BBC made clear that the video was not available to third parties.

However, that didn’t stop Joe.co.uk posting the video on Twitter.

Twitter/joe_co_uk (Scraped from the BBC)

Later, it was posted to the company’s Instagram account, remixed with graphics and music:

Instagram/joe_co_uk (Scraped from the BBC)

Update: Minutes after the publication of this article, Maximum Media deleted the above videos from its social platforms. I have included screengrabs of the posts in question for reference.

Engaging with @joe_co_uk and the company’s founder Niall McGarry (@MrNiallMcGarry) on Twitter, I openly questioned the company’s use of the video, asked whether it had received permission from the BBC, and questioned the company’s journalistic ethics and practices over previous unauthorised uses of copyright material.

Mr McGarry made an argument for fair use because the BBC is a public broadcaster.

Screengrabs — Twitter

In an official statement regarding Mr. McGarry’s comments, a spokesperson for the BBC said, “We did not give permission for this clip to be used… we had already made an agreement with Professor Kelly about the distribution of his clip.”

“We consider use of our content without authorisation to be a breach of copyright and reserve all rights to deal with it appropriately.” — BBC spokesperson

When questioned again about the use of the content, this is how Mr McGarry responded:

Screengrab/Twitter

According to accounts filed by Maximum Media, the company made a profit of some €466,000 in the year ending April 2016, bringing total profits to over €700,000 for its Irish operations. However, its British operations published losses of over €600,000 in the first year of trading.

In the same year, McGarry and former Irish rugby international Jerry Flannery, who holds a minority stake in Maximum Media, pocketed around €200,000 in profits from the company between them.

Maximum Media credits much of its revenue stream to branded content and advertising, which, judging from the company’s websites and social platforms, is largely fuelled by the use of copyrighted material, used without permission, without attribution, and branded with the company’s logo.

Facebook/joe.ie (Scraped from RTE)

Yet Irish media seem to celebrate the practices of Maximum Media, with the 2016 Irish Social Media Awards (Sockies.ie) rewarding the company with a nomination in the category of Use of Video — Non-broadcast, for Dear Paulie and the Boys, a video created using copyright music, footage from national broadcaster RTE and images of Irish professional rugby players.

At the time of writing, RTE was conducting a “review” of over 30 instances of its content, dating back as far as 2011, that had been natively published to the Facebook and Instagram profiles of joe.ie, which it described as “an issue.”

Digiday Awards Europe, the Accenture-backed Digital Media Awards, and The Sockies, all of which have either nominated or awarded prizes to Maximum Media in recent years, failed to return emails and phone calls requesting comment over their vetting of entrants and their submissions for possible copyright infringement during the judging process.

AIB, which is a commercial partner of Maximum Media, and is “backing” the company through ‘The Capital B’, a weekly business-focused podcast, referred me to Maximum Media when asked if it endorsed the activities of joe.ie and joe.co.uk in the unauthorised use of copyright material.

Announcing the launch of the podcast in February, Mark Doyle, AIB Group Brands Director, said, “AIB are always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to reach our business audience.”

“AIB are excited about this new venture with Maximum Media, and are delighted to be backing a new digital centric business platform.” — Mark Doyle, Head of Group Brands Director at AIB

Two other commercial partners of Maximum Media, MEC Wavemaker and Screwfix.ie, failed to return requests for comment regarding their prior knowledge of editorial activities at the company’s entities.

Having recruited some well-known Irish broadcasters and former sport stars to present a number of its new initiatives, one wonders for how long more Maximum Media can get away with the practice of using content without permission for financial gain.

*Maximum Media failed to return emails requesting comment on this article.

Where to?

Social media has become the wild west of journalism, a murky world dominated by social clout and Google Analytics. For many of us, journalism was always about the story, giving a voice to the voiceless — about being first, but being right.

Right now, while social media academics and journalistic think-tanks travel the world pontificating about the latest buzz word — “Fake News”, those of us who actually work on the frontline of journalism are seeing a rapid decline in the very standards and ethics that form the cornerstone of our profession.

Securing the future of journalism is about remaining true to the high standards we set for ourselves and our news organisations, resetting the bar for what it means and takes to be a journalist, training staff, developing skill sets, promoting critical thinking and looking at honest ways to evolve.

Despite what many people think, not everyone with a laptop is a journalist. Holding people to account for their actions in the public domain is a sure way for us to ensure that going forward we rid the industry of the journalistic interlopers and copyright infringers.

It is what separates us from them.

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Derek Bowler

Head of Social Newsgathering @EBU_HQ || Journalist || Verification || Irish || Formerly @Storyful || Threema: FK9VP7F3 Wickr: bowlerderek #OSINT #SOCMINT