“Breaking news: Power surges at Aldgate, King’s Cross and Old Street”. This alert flashed across the bottom of a Sky News report on the morning of 7th July 2005. With limited information coming from the authorities, power surges seemed the most likely explanation for why tube stations in London were being evacuated.
If the same news broke today, journalists sitting in front of two or three screens would have immediately set up a geo-located Instagram search, keyword and hashtag searches on Twitter, and an Interest List on Facebook to capture official updates from the Mayor’s office, the Metropolitan police, the London Fire Brigade and the Ambulance Service. Rumours would also be flying around on private WhatsApp groups and Slack channels.
But this was 10 years ago when YouTube was just a few months old, Facebook was for students only and Twitter did not exist. That does not mean people weren’t self-publishing, however. Blogs and message boards were incredibly active spaces, it was just relatively rare for journalists to turn to them for information.
We did have mobile phones. Certainly not the mini-computers we carry around in our pockets now, but we were already addicted to them. It was striking how many relatives of people caught up in the 7/7 attacks stated in interviews that they knew their loved one was ‘at that station’, or ‘on that bus’ because they’d been texting with them during their commute.
And significantly, even though these phones weren’t smart, by 2005 many of them had camera functionality, which is why the 7/7 attacks represent such an important moment in the way breaking news is covered. Evening news bulletins led with pictures and videos that were filmed by people in the tunnels and on the streets immediately after the explosions.
I often talk about 7/7 in relation to user-generated content, but in preparation for writing this piece I went back and studied the coverage again. It was pretty startling, both in terms of the vivid memories conjured up by those images, but also to see how little has changed in the way news organisations handle eyewitness media.
On the 7th July, the BBC alone received 22,000 emails and text messages. Whilst an astonishing number, this echoed what we already knew about the willingness of loyal audiences to share their experiences with their chosen news provider. A more significant development for me was the fact that two important images were uploaded to a public message board allowing any news organisation to discover and use them. This is a practice that journalists take for granted today.
The image above was one of the first eyewitness photos to emerge. It was posted at 8.59am, ten minutes after the explosion on an underground train travelling between Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations. The photo shows Liverpool Street station being evacuated and started this thread which reads just like a subreddit. Users posted links to news stories, challenged the facts and generally tried to build on the information available.
Other eyewitness media from that day included two videos and three photographs captured inside the trains, which were all used multiple times. The two videos, when used by the BBC, were labelled “mobile phone video”.
Even though eyewitness media is now integrated seamlessly with other professionally captured footage, we still don’t have a standard way of explaining the origin of a photo or video to the audience. It is common to see the label ‘amateur footage’ or ‘eyewitness video’, but often they are not labelled at all.
In addition to this, very few of the photos and videos that I found whilst researching this article were credited with the name of the person who captured them. This could be because the eyewitnesses asked not to be identified, but it also fits into a wider pattern that we noted in a piece of research undertaken in 2013, showing that only 16% of eyewitness media was given an onscreen credit by television broadcasters.
One eyewitness photo that featured heavily in the coverage of the attacks was taken by Eliot Ward on his mobile phone. The image captured his friend Adam Stacey shielding his mouth from black smoke as they exited a train carriage. The picture was then uploaded to Moblog and subsequently to Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license, which allows content to be copied and redistributed in any format, even commercially.
The comments underneath Ward’s photo on Moblog make fascinating reading. Moblog users excitedly notify Eliot Ward whenever they see his picture appear in mainstream news coverage. They also discuss how different news organisations are crediting the photo. Similar conversations take place on social networks today, but it is notable that these comments are now much more likely to criticise news organisations that appear to exploit eyewitnesses who have uploaded photographs or videos.
In another exchange under the image, one commentator on Moblog challenges this decision to license the photo under Creative Commons, and ‘alfie’ (Alfie Dennen, the Moblog founder) replies that without Creative Commons the photograph would not have been picked up by traditional news sources:
“it would have had to go through AP, sold etc. This way it is free to use for any organisations, and it is an important image I think.”
He is absolutely right. By utilising Creative Commons in this way, Ward ensured that anyone reporting these events could easily use his image. It is rare to see eyewitnesses taking such control of their content today, resulting in them having to endure chaotic and confused exchanges on social platforms with journalists desperate to secure permission, often only minutes after they have experienced something traumatic.
Over the past five years, a number of licensing agencies have sprung up to manage the rights on behalf of an eyewitness, attaching a financial value and creating a market for user-generated news content. These agencies are incredibly quick (often the first to make contact) and in many cases their assistance is welcomed by eyewitnesses attempting to handle the inevitable deluge of media requests. However, these issues of ownership and value can be particularly problematic for such historically important news images.
By uploading his photograph to Wikimedia, Ward increased the chances of it surviving as a digital record of the day. I was astonished by the number of broken links I found as I clicked different URLs relating to the attacks, either because photographs have been removed or the websites that hosted them no longer exist. Even for a story as important as this, we’ve lost so much that was uploaded to blogs or message boards. This piece by Melody Kramer about archive in an age of ephemeral media really touched a nerve when trying to re-create the timeline of images captured by eyewitnesses during 7/7.
I knew I wanted to write something about 7/7 as it was such an important day for ‘user-generated content’, my research specialism. But it was only after sitting and writing this piece, that I actually realised how little things have changed. Yes, mobile phones and social networks means that journalists have had to significantly adapt their newsgathering methods during breaking news events, but the way news organisations actually treat eyewitness media has not changed at all.
I would have have thought that after ten years every newsroom would have guidelines for crediting and labelling eyewitness media, ethical standards would be agreed and adhered to, and there wouldn’t be scrums of journalists asking the same poor eyewitness ‘can we use your photo?’.
I would have hoped that the social networks might have worked with Creative Commons to build a 24 or 48 hour news licence (as suggested by Mark Little many years ago) and that some licensing agencies would recognise that their financial incentives could encourage eyewitnesses to run towards an explosion and not away from it. I would have hoped that the practice of running pre-roll ads before a video that has been scraped from YouTube without permission or credit, would at least not apply to footage of breaking news events.
It turns out our phones may have got significantly smarter, our data plans cheaper and our addiction to social networks more engrained, but in terms of how the news industry handles eyewitness media, we’re exactly where we were 10 years ago.