UGC: the legal risks for journalists.

Audiences have long been involved with and important to news production – where you may have once written a letter to an editor, you might now take to the comments section of an online news article to express your view. New technology brings with it a new and improved stream of communication with readers, but it also brings with it some legal issues that are certainly relevant to journalism today.

User-generated content (UGC) is a broad term, one that refers to any form of content created by users of an online service or system. For example this could be in the form of a blog, tweet, digital image, video or discussion forum, to name but a few. An increase in UGC goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of social media sites, along with advances in technology:

Some of the cameras available on smart phones now blur the line between the amateur happy-snapper and professional photographer (Nokia’s 808 Pureview and Lumia 1020 hold the crown with 41-megapixels).  The other key feature of modern phones is internet accessibility, meaning posting UGC is that much easier too. WiFi was first available on London Underground stations in 2012, with most networks now offering this to their customers, making it a strange and confusing period for those few moments a day you might not actually have internet access.

News relies on user-generated content in many ways. Among other stories, the news of Whitney Houston’s death first broke on Twitter a whole 27-minutes before mainstream media got hold of it. While jobs in the news industry, such as ‘social media executive’, only exist in light of UGC.

With UGC firmly cemented as part of 21st Century journalism, it brings with it challenges for 21st Century journalists. Some of the key issues are highlighted below:

  1. Defamation

This is probably the highest profile and most important aspect of media law, especially in relation to social media. There are lots of layers to this issue with Defamation being one of the most interesting but more complex matters – essentially allowing individuals and organisations to sue for serious damage to their reputation. You can defame someone by publishing material in print media, TV/radio broadcasts and email, with a range of online forms being most relevant to user-generated content eg blogs, forums and social media.

As both a user of social media and an aspiring journalist, one of the key points I keep in mind is the ‘repetition rule’ – if you repeat a libel then you also hold liability for it. This has been important during my Twitter engagement as I’ve been careful to check what I retweet is definitely true or not to associate myself with it.

Possibly the most well-known UK case of libel is that of Lord McAlpine who was falsely accused of child sex abuse. From an Ofcom investigation, the conservative peer received a damages settlement from BBC Newsnight and ITV after suggesting – although not naming him – as a paedophile. The report sparked a guessing game on Twitter, with hundreds of users making the defamatory allegation against him in the process. Those sued for libel included wife of the Commons speaker, Sally Bercow, and comedian, Alan Davies, who agreed to pay £15,000 in damages, adding in a statement:

“From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting.”

This case spanned across several people and organisations, providing a hard-lesson for those involved and acting as a reminder of media law.

Being aware of the Defamation Act is crucial to digital journalism because no one is exempt from repeating information, even if others are already sharing it. This is particularly important with regards to user-generated content as it is essential that sources and facts are checked before use.

It’s also worth highlighting that you can only be sued for defamatory material within 12 months of its original publication date – the same applies to third-party comments (below).

  1. Third-party comments

Reader comments through the ‘comments’ section of an online source can be one of the most valuable aspects of user-generated content because it breaks down the wall between the publisher and the reader. When reading an online news article I often find myself then looking at the comments section to join in or simply listen to the digital conversation taking place. I took to Twitter to see if my followers agreed:

Screenshot 2016-01-08 15.10.10
Screenshot from my Twitter account.

Any platform that allows for third-party comments can be a hub for different opinions and interesting responses, creating a discussion beyond the article itself. However, it can also be a hub for false remarks. My university lecture on media law received a mix of answers when faced with the question:

‘As the host site for potential slanderous or untrue third-party comments, is the publisher liable?’

With big thanks to the online publishers defence – ‘innocent dissemination‘– the publisher is not liable if the contribution is post-moderated (as most sites now are). Despite this, it’s generally common courtesy and advised that publishers should remove any defamatory comments upon being alerted of them. The Banks report published in n0tice suggests that “you take down the defamatory material once you are notified of its presence” to avoid liability for it.

This seems like a very fair law especially when you consider the sheer volume of third-party comments online now. It’s certainly one of the clearer media laws which works well to protect journalists and publications in a realm of user-generated content.

  1. Copyright

With photos and videos made readily available and accessible, especially with UGC from social media, copyright is a complex media law which is likely to grow in cases. Perhaps the most obvious solution should be to simply not use uncredited or copyrighted images, but unfortunately this is not always the case. In the same way you would not take a picture from a gallery without asking permission, the system shouldn’t be abused just because it’s available in an online gallery now.

In relation to the news industry using user-generated content, I recommend reading this research from the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism. One of the conclusions from the report is that:

“News organisations are poor and inconsistent in labeling content as UGC and crediting the individual who captured the content.”

For instance, in BuzzFeed’s collection of football photos named ‘The 30 Funniest Header Faces’, they used one of the images from photographer Kai Eiselein’s Flickr account without permission. They removed the photo upon his request, however, other websites were by then using the article. Despite not even having a lawyer, Eiselein filed a $3.6 million copyright lawsuit, an example of just how expensive copyright infringement can be.

Among other publications, the Daily Mail have come under fire for using images without permission on several occasions. Just a simple google search brings up several copyright cases, as demonstrated in this blog post by photographer Josh Dunlop. Another case is identified in this post by Alice Taylor, who had originally tweeted a picture which Daily Mail then used despite being denied permission.

It’s a lesson to be learnt that the same rules of copyright apply for user-generated content. The first owner of the copyright is generally the creator, so if permission is not granted to use the image then it simply should not be used (unless you fancy a potentially hefty and expensive legal battle). It’s another one of the more complex issues especially in light of UGC and is sure to grow in importance and volume of cases.

I’ll admit when I first saw ‘Media Law’ on my university timetable, I never expected to find it as interesting as I do. I decided to reflect on the legal challenges for journalists alongside user-generated content as it’s an issue that is relevant to digital journalism and is still yet to emerge in full force. Undoubtedly there will be an increase in cases regarding UGC, which are particularly significant in the digital age.

(Header image is labeled for noncommercial reuse – you can find it here)


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