Byrd photographer: Peter Bondo
February 2017

How user-generated content has changed news coverage forever

Mikkel Reymann Stephensen

The tsunami that hit fourteen Asian countries in 2004, the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger who in 2009 safely steered an Airbus 320 to ditch in the Hudson River and the Arab Spring which began in 2010 are three very different stories. But all of them had a huge impact on newsrooms all over the world.

It was a stunningly beautiful day on Phuket Island in the southern part of Thailand. The sun had been up for a few hours when the turquoise water of the Indian Ocean started retreating, exposing the sea bed. The full moon the day before could not explain a tide like this. It was unusual. Tourists were lying on the beaches or having breakfast in their bungalows, locals were on their way to work. None of them had any idea that this was the beginning of a catastrophic nightmare that would kill more than 230.000 people in fourteen countries and leave parts of Asia in chaos. The seismic institute in Jakarta, Indonesia recorded an 9.0 earthquake under the Indian Ocean at 7:58AM on December 26th 2004. Shortly after the majority of the world was taught a new word; tsunami.

Destroying everything in parts of Thailand, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka media relied on the survivors to provide them with information, reports and footage from this catastrophe. The news coverage was based almost solely on what is today known as user-generated content. Those images and videos found their way out of places where everything was ruined and ended in newspapers, on websites and tv’s all over the world. They made everyone aware what was going on and caught the entire planet's attention in the weeks to come.

'Miracle on The Hudson'

A little more than four years later, on January 15th 2009, captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were on route from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. They had only flown the Airbus 320-214 for three minutes when they hit a flock of birds. The strike made both engines lose power and rapidly the plane lost altitude. Captain Sullenberger saw no other option than performing a controlled ditch into the Hudson River on Manhattan. All 155 passengers survived and shortly after the incident was named “Miracle on the Hudson”.

All of this unfolded in a few minutes. No one was aware, no news crews were pointing their cameras to the sky over Manhattan. But a few stores had security cameras, and some employees in offices overlooking the Hudson were recording. Social media carried the extraordinary and heroic incident through the web, media obtained photos and videos and within hours the world watched Captain Sullenberger ditch a plane in the Hudson. This was the beginning of something new, an acceptance that regular folks could witness, document and report the news. Newsrooms could do better coverage if they collaborated with citizens.

The Arab Spring

The biggest change in newsrooms and news coverage happened during the Arab Spring between late 2010 and mid 2012. Unlike the Tsunami and The Miracle on the Hudson, the Arab Spring was an ongoing event. Insurgencies and demonstrations broke out in the majority of the Arab world. Even in totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia. Somewhere between the Tsunami and the Arab Spring there had been a shift. Now it was okay to use ordinary people not only as sources or to provide photos and videos but also to report from these conflicts where western news outlets had a hard time. Globalization, smartphones and social media gave newsrooms new tools and regular citizens new ways to cover stories. And none of them could have been reported without eyewitnesses sharing their recordings.

User-generated content ceases to be a secondary source. Often it will be the primary source. None of this was possible fifteen years ago. Now it is, and it will change news forever and for the better. New York Times writes in its adds “Truth. It’s hard to find. But easier with 1000+ journalists looking”. It’s spot on. And truth will be even easier to find if these 1000+ journalists are assisted by photographers, videographers and eyewitnesses all over the world, united through technology.