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User Generated Content

Understanding its Impact Upon Contributors, Non-Contributors and the BBC

Grant Holder: Claire Wardle

Co-applicants: Justin Lewis, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Tammy Boyce and Howard Barrell

Full-Time Research Associate: Andrew Williams

Funder: AHRC/BBC

Period: July 2007 to June 2008

Received wisdom says citizens are playing an increasingly important role in the production of news because of the large number of emails, texts, photos and message board comments sent to news organisations.  However, this research, undertaken collaboration with journalists at the BBC’s Nations and Regions team challenges this notion. It found that although there are increasing levels of awareness and approval for citizen involvement in the news, only 4% of the British public have actually contributed content to a news media website. We also found that increasing use of audience material has not led to substantially more collaborative engagement between the public and journalists.

The project generated the first in-depth report into news-related User Generated Content (UGC) at a major news organisation. The research was a “Knowledge Exchange” initiative co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the BBC. The research team set out to: discover how many, and what kinds of people contribute material to UK news organisations; find out what audiences and journalists think of public participation in news production; and see how journalism practice is being changed by the ‘audience revolution’.

It involved 6 different methodologies: 10 weeks of newsroom observations at different newsrooms across the BBC; a nationally representative Ipsos MORI survey of 944 people; an online survey of 695 BBC website contributors; 12 focus groups with 100 people; 115 interviews with BBC journalists; 10 interviews with senior managers and BBC executives; and analysis of 105 hours of news output from 13 national and regional TV and radio programmes (and associated websites).

The audience research found:

  • On the whole, the audience is in favour of increasing citizen involvement in producing the news (71% think it is a good thing that ‘news organisations are using material sent in by the public more now than they used to’, only 6% disagreed). But they also think journalists should play a ‘quality control’ role when dealing with audience material, and think it is important that such content should be vetted by journalists in order to maintain the quality of the news (57% agreed and 6% disagreed)
  • Despite high levels of approval for increasing use of audience material, numbers of people submitting material vary enormously across news platforms. Only 4% of the public have ever submitted UGC to an internet news site (a category which includes submissions to large news organisations as well as smaller independent news blogs). Submission rates to more established platforms were higher: 17% have contributed material to a printed newspaper, 9% to a topical radio phone-in, and 7% to a TV news programme. 72% of the public have never contributed any form of ‘UGC’
  • Our representative survey demonstrated that the typical profile of a contributor to any news organisation is: white (97%), male (54%), between 55 and 59 (31%), in full-time employment (34%), and a non-manual worker (36%). Social class is a significant factor behind who contributes news UGC. For example, one third of all those in the AB social groups have contributed some form of UGC in the past, compared with only just over a tenth of those in the DE groups
  • Around one in ten people in the UK say they would act as ‘citizen reporters’ if faced with a hypothetical news event (a large factory fire) by either photographing or videoing it and sending it to the media (6%) or by ringing up a news organisation to tip them off (5%).
  • Participation levels relating to non-news forums and platforms are higher in many instances. 24% of people claim to have voted on a reality TV or talent show, and 7% have contacted an entertainment or sports TV or radio programme. On the internet 18% say they have contributed to a social networking site, 7% have contributed to media sharing sites such as Flickr or Youtube, and 7% have contributed material to another kind of non-news website (such as a non-news blog or bulletin board).

The study of journalism practice found:

  • The term ‘user generated content’ is inadequate because it refers to so many different kinds of participation (e.g. ‘audience content’ - submitting eyewitness audio visual materials, accounts of experiences, or story tip-offs; ‘audience comment’ submitting opinions online or through texts or e-mails to programmes; ‘collaborative content’ where members of the public work in close co-operation on participatory journalism projects;  and ‘networked journalism’ where journalists tap into expert communities within the online audience to improve the quality of journalistic output). More clarity and specificity is needed when talking about the different forms of audience material
  • Despite the (often hyperbolic) claims of some media commentators about the nature and extent of the ‘audience revolution’ in news production, the rise of ‘UGC’ has not, to date, radically changed the way most BBC journalists do their jobs
  • Whilst the volume of material from the public has clearly increased significantly, most journalists interact with those who submit audience material in the same way as they have always done with news sources. Whilst this chimes with the public’s support for strong editorial measures to ensure the accuracy and validity of audience material, this also means that truly collaborative participatory journalism is rare, especially in news (where deadlines and workload pressures mean that this resource-intensive form of journalism is often simply impossible)

Dr Claire Wardle, who headed up the research, said: “This is the first research which has mapped out exactly who is submitting audience material, to examine what the public think of the increased use of it, as well as addressing how journalists are using the material and their attitudes towards it. For all the excitement about ‘UGC’ democratising news, the vast majority of the population have never contributed material. There are significant barriers to participation and news organisations should be thinking about ways of minimising those barriers to broaden the range of views and opinions included in their news output.”

Download the full report:

ugc@thebbc - Understanding its impact upon contributors, non-contributors and BBC News

Academic Research Outputs:

  • Williams, Andy, Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin, and Wardle, Claire (forthcoming 2011) “‘More Real and Less Packaged’: Audience discourse on amateur news content and its effects on journalism practice”, in Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari and Mervi Pantti (Eds.) Amateur Images and Global News, Bristol: Intellect
  • Williams, Andy, Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin, and Wardle, Claire (forthcoming 2011) “Studying UGC at the BBC: A multi-site ethnography”, in Patterson, Chris, and David Domingo (eds.) Making Online News: Newsroom ethnography in the second decade of Internet journalism, New York: Peter Lang
  • Williams, Andy, Wardle, Claire, and Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin, (forthcoming, 2011) “The Limits of Audience Participation: UGC @ the BBC”, in Journalism, Sources and Credibility, Bob Franklin and Matt Carlson (eds.), London and New York: Routledge
  • Williams, Andy, Wardle, Claire, and Wahl Jorgensen, Karin (2010) “Have They Got News for Us?” Audience revolution or business as usual at the BBC?”, Journalism Practice,5(1) pp.85-99
  • Wardle, Claire and Williams, Andy (2010) “Beyond User-Generated Content: A production study examining the ways UGC is used at the BBC”, Media Culture and Society, 32(5), pp.781-799
  • Wahl-Jorgensen , K, Williams, A., and Wardle, C. (2010) "Audience views on user-generated content: exploring the value of news from the bottom up" Northern Lights, 8(1) pp.177-194

We have presented on our research at many national and international conferences including at the ICA conferences in 2010 and 2009 (where we were awarded Top Faculty Paper in the Journalism Studies Division).

Our research impacted on BBC web design, training and practice.

For further details or information about this research please contact:

Dr Andrew Williams, Lecturer
JOMEC, Cardiff University
Bute Building,
King Edward VII Avenue, Cardiff
CF10 3NB
Tel: 02920 870088