Crowdsourcing the news: Do we need a public license for citizen journalism?

By now, it should be obvious to just about anyone that “citizen journalism” or “user-generated content” is a crucial part of what the news has become, whether it’s a photo of a plane landing on the Hudson or a video of a bomb exploding in Boston. Unfortunately, the ways that media entities handle such content is all over the map — some give credit, while others take whatever they want without so much as a link. Do we need a formal structure to deal with this new reality?

Mark Little, founder and CEO of social-media platform Storyful, thinks that we do. At the recent International Journalism Festival in Italy — where the former foreign correspondent and news anchor discussed the idea with me over breakfast — Little said that he had floated the idea of a “Perugia Declaration” (named after the city where the conference was held) as a way of trying to formalize how media outlets of all kinds should deal with user-generated content.


Giving credit where credit is due

Little expanded on this idea in a recent post at the Storyful blog, where he described how the current process of using videos from “citizen journalists” is chaotic at best: while some outlets do their best to link to the original source — or at the very least the original uploader — other sites don’t give any at all, or provide a tiny credit line that says “Credit: YouTube,” which Little says is like putting “Credit: Telephone” on a newspaper report.

“In an age when every member of your audience is also a potential reporter, the old rules no longer apply – but the new rules either don’t yet exist or are not enforced. Most major news organizations have some basic guidelines governing the use of user content and some, like the BBC, have dedicated UGC units. Consistently applied standards are, however, the exception. Even as the news industry grows increasingly dependent on user-generated content it remains chronically confused by it.”

Social media

Helping to track down and confirm the original sources of “user-generated content” was one of the goals behind creating Storyful, and many media outlets now use the service as a way of getting access to verified content during a breaking news event. The service also recently started helping to represent creators of “viral videos” and other user-generated content in their dealings with publishers — in effect, becoming an agent for them, and taking a cut of the proceeds in return for its efforts.

But Little sees news-related content as a different animal entirely — almost as a public good, he said — and he wants media organizations to agree on a kind of Creative Commons-style format for giving credit to the original uploaders or citizen journalists who capture that kind of content.

“Eyewitness video of a tragic but important event – natural disaster, conflict, plane crash or terror attack – clearly has immediate value. But does it have a price? Should it be sold as a commodity? I would argue that the value of this exceptional content takes the form of a public utility. It may generate secondary commercial value, but it should not be privatized.”

A “public service video licence”


In effect, the Storyful founder is suggesting that media outlets collaborate on the creation of a Public Service Video License, which would guarantee that video content would be credited to the original rights-holder (provided the rights-holder wanted to be publicly identified), and that any media entities using it would be required to give credit in a specific manner — and would only be granted a limited sub-licence to re-use the content.

Little adds that such a system would also have to prevent “scraping” or unauthorized duplication of content somehow, either through watermarking or something like YouTube’s Content ID system.

Would an approach like the one Little is suggesting work? While I sympathize with his viewpoint, I’m not sure it would. Preventing scraping or duplication, for example, would be almost impossible or prohibitively expensive — as the music and movie industries have discovered. And if all the system does is provide credit to the original source, Creative Commons and/or the “fair use” principle of U.S. copyright law would seem to already cover most of that territory.

That said, however, I think the goal is a positive one: namely, to get media companies to make providing this kind of credit part of what they do in a semi-formal way. For too long now, social-media platforms have been seen by many as a place where you can take content for your own purposes without having to provide credit to anyone. If a Perugia Declaration is what it takes to jump-start such a process, then maybe it’s an idea worth exploring.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Rosaura Ochoa