Media Regulation: Broadcasters and Social Media
Posted on 1st June 2011
Elizabeth Smith, Chair, Commonwealth Media Group and Consultant, Transforming Broadcasting
Speech by Elizabeth Smith to the World Summit for the Information Society in Geneva on 18 May 2011
One of the reasons for the quality of output by Public Service Broadcasters is that they nearly all work to Editorial Guidelines. These cover all programme issues from the trickier points of election coverage to questions of taste and decency. Over the years, UNESCO has done a great deal to help broadcasting organisations to adopt sound guidelines. The work is slow and not glamorous, but it has made a huge difference.
The CBA booklet supported by UNESCO which I am launching here today deals specifically with user-generated content, or material sent in to broadcasting organisations by the public, and with social media. So I would like, if I may, to set this into context by looking briefly at some of the recent uses of such material in the Arab Spring.
Where monopoly state broadcasters kept opposition spokesmen off the airwaves, youngsters took to social media such as Facebook and Twitter in their millions. Through these, they ran protests, leaflets, plans and all the communication needed to organise revolutions. As one of the Egyptian activists put it: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and Youtube to tell the world.” In rebel-held Libya, Radio Free Misrata on 23 April aired a programme about the role social media played in igniting the revolution. Three internet gurus from Misrata , all engineers, had kept communications going with the outside world after President Gadaffi clamped down on communications. They used a two-way satellite internet service to transfer data and audio and video clips of what was happening in Misrata to the rest of the world. They set up a new website called FreeMisrata.com One of the three, Marawan Bashir, commented: “ The website played a paramount role in mobilizing the youth for participation in this revolution and boosting their morale.” A communications centre was established through the internet to enable people wishing to contact their relatives abroad to do so. In another rebel-held area, Bengazi, a livestream video feed was set up in the courthouse that was the early centre of the revolt and the video feed was used to send images of the demos, and subsequent government crackdown to foreign media. This has now become Free Libya or Libya Alhurra. It sent out pictures at a time when some 300 died, including Mohammed Nabbous, who set up the original video feed, and who, friends say, was shot by a Government sniper.
There were similar uses of social media throughout the countries affected by the Arab Spring, and the revolutions could not have succeeded without it. When access by reporters to the events is blocked – as in Syria – journalists turn to social media to find out what was happening, and use pictures and information from these sources, generally saying what they are and that that they are unable to verify them.
So it the use of social media for news is a welcome development and we applaud the ingenuity of those who, with many obstacles places in their way by hostile governments, and often poor equipment, used their ingenuity to the full and got their messages out. But there are hazards in using such material. It may contain major inaccuracies. It may even be deliberately fraudulent. This is why a couple of years ago the CBA published a booklet, commissioned by UNESCO, called Guidelines for Broadcasters on Promoting User-generated Content and Media and Information Literacy. There are two angles to this booklet. One is how such information can be best used by broadcasters and the safeguards they need to put in place to use it responsibly. And the other is to guide the public, and those inputting material, in how to assess content for accuracy and reliability so that they can use it with reasonable confidence. Printed copies of the booklet are already exhausted but, through the wonders of the internet, it can be downloaded from the CBA website and the Unesco one. The author is Martin Scott, a media academic at the University of East Anglia.
Of course in the conditions of revolution, no one is going to pause to look at such Guidelines, but they need to become part of the everyday thinking of both the broadcasters and the general public. There are also excellent Guidelines for Journalists in using social media within the CBA’s “Editorial Guidelines” by Mary Raine. These were also supported by UNESCO. They quote the BBC’s Guidelines, and many other broadcasters’ Guidelines, and cover the unit set up by the BBC to vet the over 10,000 email comments and photos the BBC receives each week, and the video clips they receive which average 100 per week, with many more coming in when there is a big domestic story such as a snowstorm. Printed copies of this booklet are still available via the CBA website, or it can also be downloaded from the CBA and UNESCO websites.
The essence of the advice in both booklets is that broadcasters should set up systems for handling incoming material from the public, they should check its veracity and its origins, and they should identify the source. They should take normal precautions against libel and be aware of the possibility of deliberate misinformation. For the public, they should take into account the source when viewing such material, and should understand the difference between material on a trusted website and one on an unknown one. When submitting material, they have to be aware of the need for accuracy and of giving sources, and they too need to be aware of the danger of libel.
So this is not rocket science; more like common sense. It is partly through the work of UNESCO that such issues are now coming to be more and more widely understood, and we should commend them for it.
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