Cashing in on UGC

Are news organisations risking their reputation for a slice of the UGC pie?

The exposure of the now infamous Syria ‘hero boy’ video as a hoax has stimulated much debate around user-generated content (UGC), verification, ethics and the implications for journalism and humanitarian missions.

The video also struck a chord with us at Eyewitness Media Hub, and not just for the concerns outlined above. The way it was handled confirms one of the worrying trends we have seen emerging in our current research project, a global study of of user-generated content in print media.

This trend is the propensity among some news sites to take original UGC from social networks and repackage it with their own branding.

For all of the sites that swiftly reported the ‘hero boy’ video before it was independently verified, the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Mirror went a step further by burning their logos onto the video and re-uploading it to their own media players.

The Daily Mail example carried a sizeable MailOnline logo, set against a royal blue background, with “ShaamNetwork S.N.N” (the Arabic network that first found the video) below it in rather less distinct white text.

Screengrab taken from ‘Heroic young boy runs through sniper fire in Syria, pretends to get shot, then rescues terrified girl as bullets hit the floor around them’, MailOnline, 11 November 2014.

It was a similar story in the Daily Telegraph, where the ‘hero boy’ video played out below a large Daily Telegraph logo and with an advert for Telegraph.co.uk/video burnt into the bottom-right of the video.

Screengrab taken from ‘Watch: Syrian ‘hero boy’ appears to brave sniper fire to rescue terrified girl in dramatic video’, Daily Telegraph, 11 November 2014.

Branding content in this way implies a degree of ownership, when in fact the video was freely available on YouTube. It also indicates to audiences that the content is genuine, although this was obviously not true in the case of the ‘hero boy’ video.

Adding a trusted logo to a piece of content that turns out to be a hoax doesn’t seem so well advised, but do these news sites really care if they are able to cash in on the phenomenon of a video that has already gone viral?

All three sites included a pre-roll advertisement that viewers were obliged to watch before they could access the video, which is now quite common for popular content. In fact, Jack Marshall called out the practice in an article for Digiday last year. But what if this had been real eyewitness footage depicting the terrifying experiences of children in a war zone? Would viewers deem such pre-roll adverts appropriate? Would the owner of the video have been offered payment in acknowledgement of the potential revenue it could generate?

The authenticity of the video was clearly in question at the point of publication, with the Telegraph including this statement in its accompanying article:

The Telegraph cannot independently verify the footage but it is thought the incident took place in Yabroud — a town near the Lebanese border which was the last stronghold of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Experts tell the paper they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The Daily Mail took the unusual step of linking out to the Telegraph statement to justify its own decision to run with the story.

‘Heroic young boy runs through sniper fire in Syria, pretends to get shot, then rescues terrified girl as bullets hit the floor around them’, MailOnline, 11 November 2014.

So why not embed the YouTube video and be transparent about the original source, as the Independent did in their article? The New York Times also linked out directly to YouTube in their article about the filmmaker’s apology.

The opportunity to generate revenue from pre-roll adverts and video plays seems to be the obvious answer, but should losing the trust of a loyal audience not be another cost to consider?

Neglecting to credit or link to original footage is a practice often reserved to ensure the safety of uploaders who don’t want to be recognised, but without clear guidelines about what is both ethical and legal, the option to not identify the source can be exploited.

Ultimately, audiences who discovered the video via these three news sites were denied access to essential information about the original uploader that could have informed their own opinion of whether or not it was genuine. Being transparent with this detail might even have helped debunk the video earlier.

At Eyewitness Media Hub, we are interested to know whether these are issues that news organisations are thinking about — or even care about? Despite the ‘hero boy’ video now confirmed to be a hoax, the MailOnline and Telegraph pages discussed in this post are still easily accessible weeks later, at the time of writing — both without a correction, and both still containing videos carrying the respective logos.
With eyewitness media increasingly seen as a free or cheap way to make money for news sites, this example exposes the need to consider some of the more pertinent questions arising from our research in more detail. We would be really interested to hear what you think.


Eyewitness Media Hub was established with the intention of opening up discussion around this new and unchartered phenomenon. For our current research project: A global study of of user generated content in print media, we are analysing over 20,000 web pages from eight global newspapers. The results will be published early next year, but in the meantime we will continue to share some of the strongest patterns and themes to emerge.

Help us secure funding Please sign up and show your support at eyewitnessmediahub.com to help us demonstrate the demand for the work that we do.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Eyewitness Media Hub’s story.