Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reader submissions from activists

When should news organizations display reader-submitted photos from activists? When should we link to outside websites affiliated with specific causes? Can we institute some common policies that approach visuals, words and links the same way?
How can we find the time to research any conflicts of interest from readers making submissions and check their credentials? Should we?
And what can we learn from how such activist sites are using technology?

The Rainforest Action Network targeted Bank of America in Charlotte for an action Tuesday, with protesters climbing one of our city's ubiquitous cranes, dangling precariously after posting a large banner that made great visuals. The Charlotte Observer's online staff smartly solicited readers for photos and video of the very public event, likely increasing hits by making a slideshow to accompany a story.

The story did not link to the Rainforest Action Network's website, which explains in detail why it is targeting Bank of America. In the past, such a link would likely be seen as crossing over the boundaries of reporting and publicity.

However, on the visual end of things, we included a photo by Luke Smith of RAN in our slideshow of reader-submited photos. It was one of the better photos, silhouetting the banner and crane against a cloudy, pink-tinged sky. Very similar photos -- if not the same ones -- are posted on the RAN's Flickr group, shot by ranflickr. (One of them is on this post, under a Creative Commons license). It's unclear how much Photoshopping went on to enhance the sunrise, if any.

Other reader-submitted photos did not identify whether contributors had affiliation with the network.

So the questions remain: When is it right to link to an outside site that is seeking publicity? When is it right to include visuals submitted by readers with an agenda? How do we determine whether those readers even have an agenda when we have limited resources?

I don't know the answers; I do know that policy should be clear and apply in a logical way to words, links and visuals.

Many readers are submitting amazing fire photos from California. Our policies should be clear for such catastrophic events in the future as well. Can we make sure we avoid any unintended consequences, such as volunteer firefighters getting sidetracked by gathering photos and videos? How can we make sure submissions aren't Photoshopped beyond our internal policies? Should we care?

What else can we learn? I'm awestruck by activists' use of the Internet to distribute visual PDF documents to support their causes, map their plans and build their networks. I hope we've marked Nov. 16 and 17 on our newsroom calendars to be on alert to more publicity-seeking RAN events, since they're telling us about their plans on their website. I hope we talk about about policies on covering such events in advance.

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