The Risks of 'User-Generated' Content
While reading The Post's Alexandria-Arlington Extra supplement this week, Peter Golkin focused on a short story by Post reporter Annie Gowen that told how residents of Aurora Highlands had successfully lobbied to prevent cutbacks at their local library.
Golkin, the public information officer for Arlington Public Library, had no problem with the accuracy or fairness of the story. Indeed, he’d helped Gowen by providing some information.
“What really caught my eye,” he said in an e-mail, was the accompanying photo of a March 18 rally featuring a 9-year-old holding a “Save Our Library” sign.
“The credit for the photo is ‘by Nicholas Giacobbe,’” Golkin wrote. “What the credit does not mention is that Mr. Giacobbe was one of the organizers of the rally and the whole ‘Save Our Library’ campaign in the neighborhood.”
By all accounts, the photo accurately depicts what was happening at the rally. Gowen did not attend, but obtained the photo from a resident other than Giacobbe.
Use of the photo prompted Golkin, a former wire service reporter who also once worked at The Post’s Web site, to wonder about the paper’s policy “on using handout photographs of rallies taken by the organizers of those rallies.”
“This is a harmless little local community issue,” he said in a subsequent interview. “But would The Post run a photo of a (Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Terry McAuliffe rally taken by Terry McAuliffe’s wife?”
The issue is relevant as The Post relies more on so-called “user-generated” content -- especially for its Web site -- at a time when staff is being reduced to trim costs. With fewer staffers relying on more content from outside the paper, verification and authentication will become more difficult. Odds will increase that events will be portrayed out of context. Worse, it opens the door to propaganda masquerading as news content, or material that is simply phony.
Michel du Cille, who heads The Post’s photo department, said that the paper’s internal “Standards and Ethics” guidelines do not cover user-generated content. “That’s something that needs to be addressed,” he acknowledged. “We do need to update it.”
Scott Patton, an Extra editor, agrees: “We’re faced with using more user content, and despite our lofty journalistic goals, who’s going to be taking pictures of all these events and happenings that appear in the paper? Some disinterested passerby?”
The Post Web site, where user-generated content is encouraged but generally displayed separately from staff-produced content, does have public user discussion and submission guidelines.
The rally photo that was used in the paper probably “wouldn’t be much different” had The Post assigned a photographer to cover the event, Patton said. But with staffers in short supply, the photo obtained by Gowen seemed “an adequate way to illustrate that story, given our economic circumstances.”
In the absence of having an event shot by a Post photographer, disclosure seems essential -- both the photographer and his or her affiliation.
In this case, there was no effort to hide the fact that Giacobbe took the photo that accompanied Gowen’s story. Indeed, it and others he shot are posted on the “Save Aurora Hill Library” Facebook page, where he is listed as one its administrators.
No harm this time. But as user-generated content grows, so will the risks.
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