See it to believe it: Yann Tessier on user-generated content

08 Jun 2015

Yann Tessier

Yann Tessier is Senior Editor of the Day at Reuters, responsible for the delivery of global video news coverage to broadcast and online clients. We hear from Yann on the importance of user-generated content in a smartphone world.

What is user-generated content?

User-generated content has been around as long as cameras. It is the people who are standing there before something unexpected happens – like the Hungarian student who was snapping away on the roof of Charles de Gaulle airport when Concorde flies into shot with its engine on fire. He gets a clip of it and he calls Reuters.

File photo shows flames coming out of the Air France Concorde seconds before it crashed in Gonesse near Paris Roissy airportREUTERS/Andras Kisgergely (25 July 2000)

How is the world of UGC changing?

YouTube says that there is 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. There are billions of smartphones around the world and the rate of smartphone usage seems to double every year. Internet connectivity is getting better, and everywhere you go there are hundreds of cameras pointing, recording, rolling across events as they happen. Increasingly, clients are turning to us to filter content and tell them what is important.

U.S. soldiers take pictures of U.S. President Obama using their smartphones after he delivered a speech at U.S. military base Yongsan Garrison in SeoulU.S. soldiers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama using their smartphones after he delivered a speech at U.S. military base Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, South Korea, April 26, 2014. REUTERS/Lee Jin-man

Imagine U.S. President John F. Kennedy being shot now. You would probably have 40-50 different versions of it rather than Abraham Zapruder’s one piece of home-film footage. The Kennedy footage took ages to emerge before it hit the eyeballs of ordinary people, but these days it would have been visible online within a matter of minutes.

Tell us about your role at Reuters?

I am responsible for the day’s coverage, making sure that the video material that we gather goes out properly on our agency video service. This goes to around 1,200 television channels and a large number of internet channels. It’s my job to ensure that we are covering the right stories, and that the material gets delivered to clients as fast as possible. The bulk of our coverage is covered  by our own video news crews, but user-generated content is gaining increasing importance on big breaking stories.

How do we verify this kind of content?

Verification is critical, and that is the bulk of the work of our social media producers, George Sargent and Eleanor Whalley. If we can’t verify it then we can put it out with that warning, but our clients expect Reuters to get it right. We are basically looking for the things that make us believe it is genuine: what was the weather like, can we look at the terrain and the landmarks and match it up to Google Maps, does it have any corroboration with Reuters sources?

We spend a long time on contentious pieces of video. If there is a plane crash we might go through the videos frame by frame to check the exact shape of the smoke against other footage. There are people out there running material from the Libyan war two years ago as yesterday’s fight in Aleppo. You have to be really careful.

How do you approach propaganda footage, where groups intend that news outlets run staged videos?

Islamic State are very proactive in making high-end productions, not only of people being killed but of general propaganda which goes everywhere online. They know how to use social media to their advantage, looking up popular hashtags of the day in different language groups and using them so their material goes into people’s feeds.

On the Jihadi John video, we had to take the decision on whether to run all of it, whether to run part of it, or run nothing at all. In the end we ran the statements but not the shot of the body.

I do strongly believe that, as an agency, it is our job to source the material and not to make the subscriber’s decision for them and so we generally put out more than any individual client might use. But there is a limit and we draw the line at extremely graphic material that few or no subscribers would use. Our users are beginning to engage with us about exactly how we flag graphic material.

Are we implicated in propaganda if we do show this footage?

I think that debate could have held true five or ten years ago, pre-YouTube. There was a time that content had to hit an agency for it to gain global leverage. All Bin Laden could think about was getting on Al Jazeera. But social media has changed that, because these groups can still reach their audiences.

The other element is that while this is propaganda, it is still a story. We have to pick what we feel are the newsworthy events. Often social media is ugly. Our social media team see a lot of distress in a short space of time – ironically, they may see uglier stuff than some in the field over the same period, but we do make sure that they take care of their minds.

Are there particular times when distributing user-generated content has made a great impact?

Sometimes there are places where it is toxic for our journalists to go, and user-generated content can give us the stories we might not always be able to get at. In the case of Syria, we have a crew in Damascus, we have crews on the border, and we have in the past gone into Syria, but the daily story of Syria is actually told by user-generated content – people and activists putting their stuff online.

There was also recently a scandal in the UK around the issue of migrants queuing up in Calais to physically bust into the ports. There was nothing professional to be had, but we went onto Twitter and a truck driver had posted material which we put out and which Sky then picked up. The kind of images we were working with had huge impact, questions were asked in the House of Commons and the British are now going to invest millions in Calais security.

Sometimes we wouldn’t have a hope of shooting the material, but we can make sure we distribute it to our clients.

Migrants from Africa, Afghanistan and Syria queue for an evening meal at the Jules Ferry day center in CalaisMigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and Syria queue for an evening meal at the Jules Ferry day center in Calais, France, April 29, 2015. African migrants, gather in this northern French port city after they travelled from the Mediterranean northwards in the hopes of crossing the English Channel and seeking asylum in Britain. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

What trends are you seeing in this space?


With the spread of smartphones and social media, viral videos – videos that make you smile because they are odd, funny or visually arousing – are gaining increasing weight in popular consciousness. In addition to covering the hard news of the day, we are devoting increasing effort to tracking down what is also making people smile on the day and what is being shared. For a proportion of our broadcast and online subscribers, the question ‘what’s going viral today?’ is becoming nearly as important as ‘what’s happening in the world today.’ Reuters is now seeking to answer that question too.


Find out more about Reuters Social Video, delivering breaking news coverage and captivating light-hearted stories,created by users of the world’s social media platforms.