The use of eye-witness media in breaking news

What has changed since our research was published

Doing research on any topic, particularly research about media, means you are incapable of ever consuming it again without half of your brain screaming ‘That’s a great case study!’. Our Tow Center-funded research on eyewitness media in global television news has therefore completely ruined any chance of watching news like a normal person.

Our research demonstrated that many news outlets have a number of dubious practices when it comes to integrating eyewitness media content into their output. In a perfect world, we would be screaming ‘great case study’ because newsrooms had started to improve their practices. But unfortunately that’s not the case.

In this post, we will share just a few of the case studies we have captured in the past couple of months that relate to the different issues raised by the research.


Incredibly we found that only 16% of the UGC included in our study was credited by news organisations. The main reason given for this by journalists was ‘screen clutter’, or simply not realizing that they should be crediting.

There have been a number of examples in the last couple of months where uploaders are starting to get more vocal about their frustration at not being credited.

One example was the ‘selfie’ taken by Jayde Taylor and Brooke Peris at the Commonwealth Games, which was ‘photobombed’ by the Queen.

It was used by many news organisations, rarely with any type of credit. Jayde Taylor repeatedly contacted newsrooms asking them to ensure they credited with both of their names, but it didn’t seem to make much difference.

As this guy said, just bad form.

In this example most newsrooms at least mentioned Jayde Taylor, and you can see her face on the screen.

Another high profile example from the past month involved the tragic events of MH17, the Malaysia airliner shot down over Ukraine.

Tom Warners, a 14 years aviation enthusiast based in Utrecht, took this picture of the plane as it was taking off from Schipol airport. Once news broke of the plane going down, he sent this tweet.

As you can see he had watermarked the photo. Perhaps he was aware that if uploaders want credit they should add it themselves.

But the BBC apparently removed his credit, and to add insult to injury didn’t credit him either (initially).

Here’s @Aircraft32 comparing BBC and Sky News using the picture.

Later on the BBC did credit him – albeit very briefly – but spelled his name incorrectly.

As eyewitness media becomes increasingly valuable, this exchange demonstrates that people shouldn’t just credit because some people wrote about it in a report. It will start impacting audiences, their attitudes towards different news organisations and their likelihood to send content to one over another.

There were some fascinating exchanges with different Twitter users. Tom Warners is clearly somewhat knowledgeable and you can see that by the way he added the credit, and the way he doesn’t respond to everyone individually, he tweeted this:

In his replies you can see him stating that he won’t be able to make any money from the picture because it is overexposed. He also tells people he has the EXIF data if that will help them verify the time it was taken. He’s an eyewitness media expert and certainly not the typical ‘accidental journalist’.

Perhaps most depressing was an exchange between some people discussing rights when it comes to eyewitness media. Responding to Tom Warners’ complaints about the BBC’s failure to credit his photo, one Twitter user asserts that giving permission for use negates any need to credit. This isn’t the case. But as @AntonAviation congratulates Tom on getting a picture used by the ‘big boys’ , he reminds him that “they don’t play nice”.


The last month has seen some remarkable verification from different journalists, many of whom have been collaborating to piece together clues about the downing of MH17, such as in this post by Storyful, and the work of Brown Moses and others on the new Bellingcat website. It has been wonderful to see journalists collaborating on Twitter and in Storyful’s Open Newsroom to share knowledge and expertise.

But we’re still seeing silly mistakes happen in terms of verification. Here’s one from the New Zealand Herald, which ran a story about a soldier killed in Gaza. They used a photo taken from his Facebook page – oblivious that it didn’t depict the soldier but Ryan Dunn, an American television personality who died in 2011.


Another example was amazing drone footage of a firework display. It started doing the rounds just after 4th July in the US, with many outlets stating it had been filmed during a holiday fireworks display. Just a quick look at the date shows Jos Stiglingh uploaded it on 13th May.

Here we can see the Daily Mail credit @youtube, but nothing else and state it was taken during the 4th July holidays

This isn’t the type of verification that requires you to geo-locate the position of a BUK rocket launcher, it’s just a case of checking the upload date.

And in another sad case of journalists just not making the most simple of checks, the @BicycleLobby Twitter account took credit for painting flags white on top of the Brooklyn bridge. They successfully fooled some outlets, including the AP and The New York Daily News despite stating theirs is a PARODY ACCOUNT in the profile.

Their tweet soon afterwards offers a potential explanation for why they were fooled.

Vicarious Trauma

One of the issues that was discussed most by journalists who work with eyewitness media all the time, is the impact is has on them personally. (A new report by Anthony Feinstein and colleagues on this subject is well worth reading). Many cited the struggles they face watching graphic imagery for hours at a time, with the sounds emphasized as they sit cocooned from newsroom noise, with the howls of grieving family members channeled in via earphones.

Images from the crash site of MH17, and the impact of shelling in Gaza have been shared widely on social networks, and some have speculated that this has encouraged newsrooms to show images that they previously wouldn’t have deemed acceptable. This is an important debate, and a question we will be exploring in focus groups we will be carrying out over the next few months. However, it’s also important to remember the impact the streams of unfiltered images are having on staff. There are models of best practice for staff working with these types of images every day, and we would hope newsrooms are taking these on board.


These issues aren’t going away. As newsrooms rely increasingly on eyewitness media to help them tell their stories, the issues around crediting, labeling, verification, ethics and vicarious trauma will grow. In this post we explain the research we intend to carry out with audiences over the next few months. We will also post about case studies we see as we see them. It’s not a case of naming and shaming, it’s a case of agreeing what’s acceptable and what’s not.