UCG: The Accountability Lacuna


Leaving the courts to decide on complaints about user generated content is leading to a lacuna in the self-regulated accountability system and exposing the subjects of errors to unnecessary harm.

User Generated Content has been one of the few saving graces in the digital revolution in journalism. Along with the deluge of free online news to compete with, there was also a whole new world of digital content to work with; the volume of social media posts, videos, pictures and comments on article pages. The main challenge for journalists has been coping with the volume of social media posts and identifying the story amid the noise.  But it is time to look more widely at the social impact and accountability systems for UGC and new digital media content.

There are exceptional examples of how UGC has contributed to telling stories that could never have come to light otherwise. The Guardian’s Open Journalism project has produced some remarkable investigations, notably identifying two murderers.  Reported.ly operates a team of international journalists curating and verifying social media content delivering stories from across the globe and changing the face and form of foreign news coverage.  Storyful are at the forefront of UGC verification securing content and licences for news brands.

The problem with redress through the editor and self-policing media

But not all news producers are so judicious and sometimes errors’ of editorial judgement occur.  In 2012 Gawker were temporarily banned from Reddit over creepshot articles. And again recently a champion of UGC, Buzzfeed, published a list of photos of “22 hot male teachers” taken secretly by students in class. Amid criticism the company amended the article to feature 13 agreeable subjects. Buzzfeed and Gawker are large enough companies to be subject to the weight of digital media self-policing and were, to a degree, amenable to rectifying their errors.

But is this enough? Where, when the news titles fight back, can those who have been wronged by the press go when they are the subject of a UGC error? When the news title is subject to regulation some UGC content is still subject to the codes of practice but not all.  In 2014 the Press Council of Ireland for the first time included UGC in its annual report; there were nine cases in which people complained about user generated content about them on news websites. However, as UGC is not within the Council’s remit they could not process the complaints, meaning the complainants have only one other course for redress aside from the failed good graces of the Online Editor: the costly and timely courts.

The problem with redress through the courts

Here the often lengthy and expensive process offer little solace for either party and this is the very reason that self-regulating accountability systems developed.  The Irish Times went as far as the High Court in a case of defamatory anonymous comments on their website, fighting the accountability  before settling, the details of which are private, but resulting in an apology from the paper. The case of the young Irish student who was wrongly accused on social media of dodging a taxi fare with the story picked up by six media outlets amplifying the erroneous public shaming exemplifies all that can go wrong when there are no better accountability system in place for UGC and the damage that can be wrought against private people as well as press itself.

But as research shows the courts can be as much a barrier to accountability as a facilitator. Not everybody has means or the will to fight; particularly when it comes to privacy invasions where the process serves to amplify the problem before, possibly, resolving it. In fact, the core logic that underpins the self-regulation system is that it offers better options all round than the courts.

Self-regulation of UGC

Recent research from the Reuters Institute by Kellie Riordan found explicit differences in how legacy and digital native publications approach ethical standards. Riordan (2014) says: “It is crucial all media outlets ask if legacy guidelines fit the ethos of digital content production. Not all editorial standards are fit for purpose in the digital era.”

The editorial standards in question are enshrined in the formal codes of ethics or conduct, the contract between the press and public that that permits self-regulation. A reconceptualization of the ethical and professional standards is not just an issue for the press to contemplate, it for all the stakeholders in self-regulation systems.

As well as operating as guidelines for journalists the Code of Practice is an important source of protection for the people who become the subjects of news content and is the source of redress when inevitable errors occur. The principles protect subjects from invasions of privacy and ensures standards of accuracy in news content, the two most common sources of complaints to the Irish and other press regulators.

As senator David Moriss said of the problem in 2012, when speaking about the press and reviving the Privacy Bill, “It is centrally about how the individual who is seriously wronged by media reports can be ensured of appropriate speedy redress.  The jury is out on how well our current mechanisms both statutorily and voluntarily are dealing with this issue.”

If the media are to self-regulate then in the interests of ethical news publishing practice is there an aversion to developing an accountability system for UGC? It is also worth noting that it is not a matter just for the media to decide. When it comes to accountability the state and the public historically have forced the media’s hand, these lacunas only last so long.  And, as been noted, ‘the media can cause serious harm even without violating the law’ (Bertrand, 2002, Fenger et al 2014), if the media do not act to create better a safety net, someone else will.

Many publishers still rely on the ‘report abuse’ button as a mechanism for dealing with complaints, and removing the posts when they are deemed inappropriate. But there are cases where this has been found deficient; the problem is not when the content is removed on being reported but when it is not, and the press get it wrong. The questions that should be asked of the self-regulating press are: do news publishers use UGC? Can it invade privacy? And can it be inaccurate? Can it be in breach of the other legacy ethics that have been agreed upon? And if the answer to these is yes, then why not develop a self-regulated accountability system in relation to it?

The challenge of the long-tail

But then the public is presented with a broader problem: the long-tail. This is the idea that the mass of the digital niche news producers in a region is higher than that of the national legacy producers. The reality is that a growing body of digital born news producers are not regulated, only the digital editions of legacy titles and in Ireland and outlets like theJournal.ie. Many new news producers do not adhere to the codes of ethics, they may be subject to the same laws but the upshot is the public are effectively presented with a pre-regulation situation of dealing with complaints about new types of news content; where a large section of the media accountability system is the discretion of the editor or the courts.

Academics and industry researchers are increasingly calling for a close in the gaps in accountability and redress that new technology and types of content have created. And in the absence of any cooperative efforts in the digital news industry they are increasingly looking at the state to intervene.

“Democratic Societies constantly have to walk a tightrope between ensuring ethical behaviour of the media while safeguarding the freedom of the press,” said Fengler et al.  With the growing body of new news content and news content producers that are outside the self-regulation system, a system that is designed not for journalists but for ‘the right of the people to be informed’ by a press that ‘maintain[s]the highest professional and ethical standards’ (PCI), the tightrope seems a little less secure as it could be.