revealed: groundbreaking study of user generated content use at the bbc

In July 2007, as I announced here, the BBC/AHRC partnership selected eight projects
to go forward. I was, along with Liz Howell and Robin Morley, the
primary BBC sponsor for the largest of those projects, the most
comprehensive study ever undertaken of User-Generated Content and it's Impact upon Contributors, Non-Contributors and the BBC. The study was awarded £90,000, a clear demonstration of the importance of this piece of research both to the BBC and to the academic community.

The study was completed last summer but, until now, I've been unable to blog about it. Don't read between the lines – the report wasn't buried, I simply didn't feel that I had the necessary permission to blog about it but that all changed yesterday when the BBC and AHRC, who co-funded the research, held an event open to invited members of the public, including myself.

Claire Wardle from the Department of Journalism at Cardiff University, who completed the ground-breaking research along with colleague Andy Williams, revealed in this first presentation of the findings, the following.

The project was truly groundbreaking in that researchers had unparalleled access to BBC journalists, editors and audiences – allowing for:

  • 10 weeks of ethnographic shadowing in BBC newsrooms
  • interviews with 115 journalists
  • interviews with 12 senior managers
  • content analysis of a range of radio and television broadcasts as well as online content
  • a MORI poll representative of the British public at large
  • an online survey
  • 12 focus groups

access we were able to provide the researchers with was exceptional –
no previous researcher or research group had been given such an
opportunity, at least not in so far as any of us was ever aware. The
main findings of the research were that:

  • There are 5 main types of "UGC" and they fulfill 6 different roles within the BBC
  • Journalists and audiences display markedly different attitudes towards the five types
  • Technology
    is changing the volume, ease and speed of gathering news material and
    sources, but traditional journalism practices still important
  • "UGC" at the local level is particularly interesting
  • Overall there is support from the audience for the ways in which the BBC has been using "UGC"
  • Specific calls to action are most useful for news gathering and when eliciting high-quality relevant comment
  • only a small, select group of people submit "UGC"
  • UGC should never be treated as representative
  • significant
    barriers to participation: digital divide, social economic background,
    lack of impetus, and – most interesting for me – negative perceptions
    held by general audience of contributors
  • contributors want a
    real world impact for the contributions – eg. "If it was going to be
    read by Gordon Brown, then of course I'd submit it…"

The study also identified a typology of audience material:

  • audience content
  • audience comments
  • collaborative content
  • networked journalism
  • non-news content ("photos of snowmen")

majority of respondents to the MORI poll commissioned had favourable
views of user generated content and thought it played a positive roll
in reporting yet few have actually contributed.

One of the
questions was whether people would take a photo if they saw a fire
break out – just 14% said they would, and just 6% of those said they'd
send it to a news organisation. Great differences were seen across
classes – 16% of higher management would take a photo, with all saying
they'd submit it to a news organisation, but in other groups
(middle-management to manual laborers) only between 4 – 5% would take a

There's lots of other interesting findings in the
full-version of the study which, so far as I'm aware, hasn't yet been
published publicly although it's my hope that it will be made available


  1. A very interesting report, great to see more positive online developments from the BBC. The best example of user generated content I have seen is from the following video:
    “Erik Hersman presents the remarkable story of Ushahidi, a GoogleMap mashup that allowed Kenyans to report and track violence via cell phone texts following the 2008 elections, and has evolved to continue saving lives in other countries.”
    The BBC has been very good at highlighting user generated contentent and contributions in its various media channels. The other large media houses only started to see the effect of user generated content when the plane crashed in the New York river, and a twitter profile had eye witness photos of the event online in seconds. The media suddenly had to catch up very quickly with understanding current online trends and what they can offer. Even some BBC presenters started to learn and talk about twitter and what it has to offer.
    If ‘the people’ were listened to on a regular basis I think comments would not be so negative, the fact that many people in the UK have little or no respect for the people in power could provide some reasoning to why user generated content can be negative on the BBC online channels.

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