How UGC on the MSM should and shouldn’t be done

Sorry about the jargonistic TLAs there, but that would have been one mammoth post title unless I used them.

I’ve just been watching news coverage of that train derailment in Cumbria. Incidentally, Sky News’ coverage was awful. They had somebody from Virgin Trains on the phone and the questions were unforgivably banal.

Presenter: So, can you tell us something about the train? How many carriages were there on the train, because there seems to be some confusion as to whether there were six or nine carriages.
Virgin Trains man: There are nine carriages.
[Long pause.]
Presenter: Err, can you tell us something more about the train?
[I switch back to News 24.]

BBC News 24 was slightly more watchable. I was thinking about my post about user generated content in the mainstream media. This is exactly the sort of news story where UGC works well.

Quite soon after the story has broken we have seen photographs taken from inside an upside-down carriage that helps illustrate the seriousness of the crash. Of course, the eyewitness accounts are also helpful, although I’m not sure if this properly counts as user generated content (really they are just interviews).

But then News 24 went and ruined it by flashing a “Speak Your Brains Have Your Say” logo at the bottom of the screen and spending a short while reading out viewers’ emails. The first one was quite interesting — a viewer had seen what looked like a flash of lightning from the train line, which they now took to be a train crash. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but at least it’s not totally banal.

But after that they really started scraping the barrel. The usually unflappable Tim Willcox was stumbling as he struggled to find more interesting emails:

“Err, and we have another one… here…, umm. “Just seen the train crash. Genuine best wishes to all of those involved”… umm. Yess. Do keep those emails coming in.”

This illustrates my point perfectly. With the photographs from inside the train, viewers saw an instance where UGC genuinely added something to the story. Just minutes later, the mundane emails showed up the pitfalls of relying on viewers’ input too much.

And, as Ryan Morrison pointed out in the comments to my other post, it was probably a sign that it was time to move on to another story, even if the train derailment news is still developing.


  1. This is the real problem I had with 24 hour news services and why I try to stop watching them as a default when there’s nothing else on. Stuff happens twenty-four hours a day, news doesn’t. With perhaps the exception of the American news channels on the afternoon (our time) of the September 11th 2001 attacks, 24 hour coverage of even unfoulding events is normally at the rate of 58 minutes of filler and maybe 30 seconds of new information an hour, if the viewer is lucky.

  2. Not sure if you listen to the Digital Planet podcast or not but this week they have a UGC special and there is some interesting discussion about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ compared to ‘real journalists’ and how UGC can and should be used.

    Basically it should be used to show the side of the story the journalist can’t or the images the photographer or camera man can’t get (person on train after terrorist attack) and that’s it really.

    Other than that the news services should be ‘joining the conversation’ and pointing people to places on the web where people are telling their own stories and leave the rest of the news service for actual news produced and researched by journalists.