A customer’s complaint and a brand’s nightmare: The ethics of lost luggage

My mother always told me that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation but you can lose it in a minute (a Will Rogers quote, as it turns out). She was right — and the same applies to businesses.

You may remember this customer who brought negative attention to a brand.

British Airways Twitter complaint

Yes, that’s a promoted tweet. This guy was so angered by British Airways’ customer service that he actually paid to have more people see his complaint. It took British Airways eight hours to respond, explaining that their Twitter account was managed only during certain hours.  (Note: Although I don’t remember checking at the time, I’ve checked now, and British Airways does have management hours listed in its Twitter bio.)

Ultimately, everything turned out OK: The brand apologized and found the guy’s bags (which is what started the whole thing). But even though it’s basically over (although is anything really ever over on the internet?), let’s rehash things for ethics’ sake.

Was it ethical for the customer to buy a promoted tweet to air his grievances?

I actually think this may have been a little unfair. Did HVSVN try any other avenues prior to paying for the promotion? I think any dissatisfied customer should at least give a brand a chance to set things right before blasting them to their entire follower base — i.e., going the public humiliation route right out of the gate.  Try tweeting (without any paid promotion) at them, or Facebook messaging them, or filling out a standard complaint or contact form first. If you get ignored for hours or days or weeks (depending on your level of patience), by all means, go all out airing your dirty laundry.

What’s the ethical way for British Airways to react?

Reply quickly, even if you don’t have all the answers yet. It’s OK to say, “We are so sorry your luggage is not in your hands as it should be. We’re tracking it down, and we’ll keep in touch.” That’s way more comforting than silence.

Next, do something. Find the luggage and get it to the owner as quickly as possible. It’s his luggage; you lost it. It’s your responsibility to make it right, all the while communicating with the customer.

Some of you may disagree, but I think that’s where the company’s ethical duties end. If you find the luggage and it’s in one piece, you get it back to the customer and apologize for the inconvenience. But, one step further would certainly help mend the damaged relationship as well as build trust among your other followers.

Put yourself back in the customer’s shoes. You’re mad that the airline lost your luggage. But when you complained, they answered; they found the luggage and overnighted it to you; they apologized and offered you an incentive to come back — a free checked bag, an upgrade to first-class or even a free flight. Would you fly with them again? (I would.)


I hate Brighthouse cable, but I love their social media team

I have moved exactly seven times in my life. I know that’s not a ton, but it’s enough to have some, ahem, experiences with a few different cable/satellite/internet providers.

I used Charter in a few different cities and then Brighthouse in Birmingham. (Now that I’m no longer in an apartment that forces me to use a certain company, I have DirecTV and am relatively satisfied with it, but let’s concentrate on the cable folks.)

I would say that Charter and Brighthouse were equally bad in product, but Brighthouse did have a semi-redeeming quality. They were incredibly helpful on social media. Every time I had to visit their physical office in downtown Birmingham, I was greeted by less than enthusiastic workers who did the bare minimum, if that. But the social media team was always courteous, understanding and helpful. When I was a Brighthouse customer, I gave up on using the phone or attempting to get attention in person. I always turned to Twitter.

I was pleased to find upon checking @brighthousecare that my favorite helper from when I was a Brighthouse customer, Carlos, is still tweeting away.

Brighthouse Care on Twitter

I have heard a lot of people in Birmingham complain about their Brighthouse service, and of course you can see how many complaints the company receives on Twitter alone. But the social team keeps an upbeat tone and answers quickly. (There’s also a note in their bio that tells customers when the account is manned.) This certainly keeps their customers calm(ish) while Brighthouse addresses the problem(s). They use words and phrases like hello friend, happy to help, thanks and the ever cheerful 🙂 — which keeps the conversation light and makes stressful situations (such as BUT I’M MISSING THE FINALE!) a little less stressful for the customer.

I think it’s also a nice touch that each team member signs tweets with their name. It humanizes the big bad cable brand and keeps people (at least me) from getting quite as angry. It’s easier to be impatient and rude with a faceless brand than an individual with a name.

You’ll notice the Brighthouse team directs a lot of the conversation to direct message. I think this achieves two positives for them: (1) Customers can share personal information like service addresses or account numbers, and (2) It moves a potentially negative conversation to a more private place. However, for the record, I do not think the second reason is not reason enough alone to privatize a conversation on social media.

Brighthouse’s social team made all the cable/internet outages and equipment failures more bearable because I felt like I had someone on my side. Will I ever go back? I doubt it. But I commend the social team on a tough job well done. Now somebody give Carlos a raise!

Have you had any good or bad experiences with your cable/satellite/internet providers’ social media team? How did it affect your view of the overall company?

Finding voice and balance on social media: A work in progress

voiceI’m one of the team members behind the AL.com brand on social media (Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and Instagram!). I think we’ve developed our voice fairly well, but we certainly have room for improvement.

We aim for an informative and helpful tone, and I think we achieve that. We’re also straightforward, honest and responsive (although we’re constantly working to be more responsive). What I’d like to work on is injecting more fun into our voice — when appropriate, of course. It can be tricky and even dangerous for a news organization to find the right balance between solemn and lighthearted, but when handled deftly, the brand becomes much more interesting and valuable.

The risk we run is being perceived as a brand that doesn’t take our journalistic duties seriously or even making our followers believe we’re making fun of a situation they take seriously. We certainly have to be careful about what topics we decide to get more creative with. For instance, some of our readers may feel comfortable tweeting a story about a prostitution sting with a joking tone (and I might even laugh), but that’s something I do not feel comfortable making light of as the brand.

Fortunately, there are brands out there who have it figured out — and some who don’t — that we can observe and take notes. Royal Dutch Airlines (@KLM on Twitter) is one of the good guys. They’re incredibly responsive, which as I said above is an area I’d like to help my company’s brand improve. Right in their Twitter cover photo, which they say they update every 5 minutes, they invite their followers to ask questions and give feedback and they provide an estimate of how quickly they’ll respond.


KLM has a social media team answering customers around the clock, which is something not every company has. But the most important thing I’m taking away from KLM’s stellar social approach for my social approach is that we should let AL.com’s followers know more clearly what they can expect — when we have people manning the accounts and how quickly they can expect a response to questions and reports of problems.

And then, there’s the folks who show us what not to do. Exhibit A:

Uh, what?
Uh, what?

When what they really meant to say was this:

Oh, OK.
Oh, OK.

But the damage was done, and the clever people of the internet were already having their fun, at Virgin Trains’ expense.


So lessons learned here: Be clear, don’t be dramatic and avoid caps lock. I guess at least they didn’t delete their first tweet and issued an update.

What do your favorite brands do well on social media? What brands’ social media flubs stand out to you? 

A case study in earning trust on social media: James Spann the weather man

For social media managers, trust is the holy grail. You would think making people trust you on social media would come naturally. For many people and brands, it’s not quite that simple. Experts publish blogs about achieving trust; speakers who have it figured out get paid to talk about their tactics at conferences. As I wrote earlier, there have even been formulas created to make sense of what exactly makes people trust other people and brands on social media.

James Spann is the man when it comes to weather and social media trust.
James Spann is the man when it comes to weather and social media trust.

But some people just make it look easy. One such person/brand is Birmingham area meteorologist James Spann. Spann has garnered more than 143,000 followers on Twitter and more than 141,000 followers on Facebook. According to his Facebook About section, he’s been a meteorologist at ABC 33/40 since 1996. His experience plus the almost 20 years he’s been at one channel certainly adds to his credibility on social media, but there’s more to it than that.

Spann has branded himself as the go-to guy for severe weather, especially tornadoes, which are prevalent in Alabama and the Birmingham area. On air and on social media, he doesn’t talk only about the path of storms or wind speeds or other things that weather guys are trained to discuss. He gives people tips for staying safe when storms pass through their areas. And he even helps people make sense of the maps on screen by pointing out specific landmarks instead of using terms for a broader area — “The tornado is headed toward the Hoover Target on 150, so everyone in the Tyler Crest subdivision nearby, you need to get in your safe place now!” (That’s not a direct quote, and a tornado hasn’t toppled that Target — just an example of how specific Spann is.)

He tweets and shares these very specific and clearly worded warnings and updates and tips, which is incredibly helpful to his followers in areas affected by storms, but he takes it a step further than just being an expert in his field.  Spann is one of the most interactive accounts I follow. I’m not quite sure how he got to the point that witnesses and photographers of weather almost automatically send him their details and photos, but that’s what happens. If you spot a tornado in the Birmingham area, you snap a photo and tweet it to Spann; that’s just what you do.  And you can almost be guaranteed to receive a reply, favorite or retweet from the area’s favorite weatherman.

Going back to the idea of the trust formula (Authority x Helpfulness x Intimacy / Self Promotion), Spann hits all three of the positives, with very little self promotion (and even when he is promoting ABC 33/40’s weather coverage, it’s worded in a way that shows concern for his followers, not the number of page views or TV viewers).

Alabama folks: What else makes you trust James Spann on social media?

Outside-of-Alabama folks: Have you ever heard of our favorite weather man?

How to gain trust on social media, as shown by not-quite-math

Gaining people’s trust on social media isn’t easy. A follow doesn’t mean trust; a like doesn’t mean trust. You have to earn it beyond those first signs of interest from your community.

Here’s one stab at figuring out what that hell that means:

Steve Rayson's Trust Formula
Steve Rayson’s Trust Formula

Steve Rayson wrote about this formula over at Social Media Today, where he improved upon “Trust Agents” authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s original formula of influence + reputation = trust. My professor Justin Kings also suggested that Rayson add some combination of reliability and consistency to his new formula.

Although I can think of a few more wonderful words that are important to gaining trust, in the spirit of social media’s brevity, I wouldn’t add any more precious characters to this trusty formula. What I’d offer is a still short and math-inspired addition to further break down what each of those words from the main formula encompasses. Here’s my stab at that:

  • Authority = Knowledge x Ingenuity
  • Helpfulness = (Attentiveness + Responsiveness) x Consistency
  • Intimacy = Transparency x (Humor + Empathy + Charisma)
  • Self Promotion = Benefit to You – Benefit to Your Community **

With all that said, I don’t think anyone needs to fret about memorizing any formulas. These ideas disguised as math  are important concepts to keep in mind, but there’s no need to measure every tweet with addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.

When in doubt, I rely on my gut — but not my social media manager gut. I distance myself from the situation and put myself in the shoes of a person who has no ties to the brand that I manage. How would the average person take whatever it is I’m considering saying as the brand? What would make the average person walk away from this situation with a warm fuzzy, or at least satisfied, feeling? What would make me, as an average person, smile?

I think all these formulas get at that. But ultimately, the human part of social media can’t be totally decoded with math.

** If the Self Promotion balance is zero, you’re in the clear, and there’s no need to divide by it in Rayson’s formula. So you’re basically awesomely trustworthy. Dividing by zero would give us an undefined answer, which would defeat the whole purpose of the formula. And now I’m having math team flashbacks.

I’m sure everyone has an opinion on what makes people trustworthy on social media. What did I leave out?

Whom do you trust? Can you pinpoint the reasons you trust that person or brand?

I love Pinterest, but its purpose and terms of service don’t quite line up

I don’t spend as much time on Pinterest as I spend on Facebook and Twitter every week, but the virtual pin board is my favorite social network. I can collect a  week’s worth of recipes and a weekend’s worth of home projects in a visually appealing way that doesn’t take up any space on my desktop or my bookmarks bar, and at the same time I can share all these ideas, goals and inspiration with my friends.

My Pinterest time, squeezed in between work and grad school, is sacred.
My Pinterest time, squeezed in between work and grad school, is sacred.

Unfortunately, my favorite thing about Pinterest is part of its problem. Pinterest is built on the idea that people will share content that spans a number of categories, and it’s unlikely that anyone with more than a few pins owns every piece of the content they pin. Pinterest has received criticism from the blogosphere for its terms of service, which basically say that the way the majority of its users use the network — pinning content for which they don’t own the copyright — isn’t legal.

Georgia photographer and lawyer Kirsten Kowalski even deleted her Pinterest boards and wrote a blog post about it two years ago. The terms that sparked the controversy are similar to YouTube’s and Tumblr’s, the folks at Above the Law point out. All three sites conveniently relieve themselves of responsibility for what its users post, even when the culture of those networks promote sharing others’ content — especially on Pinterest.

From Pinterest’s terms:

Pinterest allows you to post content, including photos, comments, links, and other materials. Anything that you post or otherwise make available on our Products is referred to as “User Content.” You retain all rights in, and are solely responsible for, the User Content you post to Pinterest.

And, from the condensed version of the copyright section:

We respect copyrights. You should, too.

It’s unfortunate that Pinterest’s purpose as a social network and its terms don’t seem to line up. But the good news is, most content creators actually want other people to see their content — whether it’s a blog post, a photo gallery or a product page — and promotion via pins from others is appreciated. Pins link to the source of the content, so having a number of people sharing that content they don’t own is good for the business’ or person’s page views and/or sales. (I should note here that Pinterest now requires businesses to set up an account specifically for businesses, which has its own terms of service.) For those who do have a complaint about content pinned without the owner’s permission, Pinterest offers a copyright complaint form along with some guidelines for when and how to use it.

With all that said, I don’t know how to fix the Pinterest problem. I know the company has to protect itself, but they’ve basically created an “at-your-own-risk” playground. It’s super fun, and chances are, you’ll be able to play and not get sued or lose your account. But if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.

Are you a Pinterest user? What do you think about the terms you agreed to? What do you think Pinterest could do to be more helpful to its users?

Do you read the terms and conditions? Here’s what I would change

I started working on this week’s Social Media Ethics assignment a little too close to bedtime, and I’ve discovered a new alternative to Benadryl or Advil PM: Facebook’s Terms and Conditions. And if you make it to the bottom of that page and you’re still awake, don’t worry: You’ve still got 10 more options.

Better than counting sheep!
Better than counting sheep!

Twitter is slightly better, and at least they provide the “tips” you see below that convert legalese to English and point out the most important stuff.

The terms are still long, but at least you're helpful, Twitter.
The terms are still long, but at least you’re somewhat helpful, Twitter.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m sure there’s some legal reason for all these sites to have terms and conditions for days. I’ve never read the full terms for any of the social media platforms I use, but I have read posts on blogs like Mashable and TechCrunch that have outlined major changes in certain networks’ terms over the years, so I do at least have a general idea of what they say. But I would be willing to bet that the majority of users don’t even do that.

In the future of terms, I would like to see more of what Twitter has attempted to do. Publish your mile-long terms if you must, but also offer a concise version in words that make sense to people without a law degree. Maybe even offer some interaction, like a “Do you know your rights on [insert social network]?” quiz, which people can take and share their score. Every wrong answer could offer a sentence or two on that particular topic. If people take the time to figure out what kind of cookie they are, surely they’d spend a few minutes on a quiz to see how well they understand a social network they spend hours using.  They could even get the folks at Buzzfeed to design the quiz to make it more irresistible.

I think people are most concerned about their rights and about their privacy. Who can see my content? Who can legally use it and for what purpose? I’d like to see those concise terms I was talking about written in an inverted pyramid style, where the most important items are at the top, and the rest are written in order of decreasing importance. You can’t count on people to read all the way through anything, but you can at least increase the likelihood that they’ll read the most significant parts.

Do you read the small print when you sign up for a new account somewhere online? What do you think would make terms and conditions less boring and more digestible?

Unethical Facebook friend requests? I think not

imagesI loved the ethics class I took in undergrad. Thinking about what’s most “right” when there are so many factors fascinated me.  At that time, social media definitely existed, but it wasn’t yet the marketing juggernaut it is now. And there was certainly no Social Media Ethics class offered.

Well now I’m in it — and Lecture 1 already has my wheels turning.

The question, posed to journalists:

Is it (un) ethical to contact a murder suspect’s or murder victim’s friend on Facebook?

Justin Kings‘ technique for making an ethical decision:

  1. What’s my motivation?
  2. What are the likely effects, and to whom?
  3. Where does my duty lie strongest?

I think this technique is a fair strategy. The only potential weakness I see is that it requires the people using it to be very honest with themselves about their motivations, effects and priorities. For example, in the question of the murder suspect/victim’s friend, journalists could convince themselves of whatever yields the results they desire. But as long as the people using this technique are using it because they truly want to choose the most ethical path, and not convince themselves that what they want to do is ethical, this three-pronged approach is solid.

When the question was asked in lecture, I immediately started thinking about how I would handle the situation. I do work for a news organization, and although I’m not a crime reporter (and so I wouldn’t deal with this exact situation in real life), I have an idea of how I would handle it.

My motivation would be that talking to the friend would have journalistic value. It could reveal the character of the suspect or victim — and yes, generate page views. Scoring the interview could also be good for me as a journalist — getting respect from my managers and coworkers, and solidifying my future in news.

The effects? Depending on the person, the friend request, interview or story could upset them. And depending on the results of the interview, it could either be good or bad for the public’s perception of the suspect/victim’s character. But either way, the public is more informed and our news organization builds credibility, as do I, by making contact and gaining more information.

I’m doing my best to be objective in this hypothetical situation, and maybe my journalism school training is shining through here — but I truly believe my duty to inform the public would be more important than allowing the friend to remain anonymous.

I’ve also tried to consider, what if I were the friend? Would I want to be contacted? Probably not. But I could always ignore the friend requests or messages from reporters. I may find the communication annoying, but I can’t imagine such a request for contact striking me as unethical. A reporter contacting the friend does not mean that the friend must talk to them, but the reporter not even trying to contact a potential source just doesn’t seem like an option for a journalist.

How would you handle the situation as a journalist? What about as the friend?

Hello again, grad school: Summer classes edition

This is semester number three for me in the University of Florida’s mass communications/social media master’s program. For some reason, three seems much farther along than two, and it seems hard to believe that three (which marks halfway) is actually here.

Despite never having seen any of my classmates or professors in person, I already feel like I know many of them quite well. We Facebook, we Tweet, we Hangout. But for those I haven’t met yet, here’s an introduction (and I look forward to reading yours!).

A relatively recent photo of the McKinneys. We're not very good at remembering to take photos of ourselves together. We're working on it.
A relatively recent photo of the McKinneys. We’re not very good at remembering to take photos of ourselves together. We’re working on it.

My name is Julie Clark McKinney, and I live in Birmingham, Alabama, with my incredibly supportive husband of almost two years, Will McKinney. I am the statewide community engagement specialist for Alabama Media Group, a media company that includes AL.com, The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Press-Register (in Mobile). Some of my main responsibilities include managing our branded social media accounts and working with community bloggers and commenters on AL.com. I’m looking forward to seeing how this class (Social Media Ethics) can help me better deal with any sticky situations that may arise in both my professional and personal activity on social media.

I graduated from Auburn University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. I know a lot of my classmates did their undergrad at Florida, and I love you guys — but War Eagle!

When I’m not working on work or school, you might find me baking something awesome but ridiculously unhealthy or attempting to keep my garden alive and weed-free. This semester may be an especially interesting one if we end up buying a new house this summer (we’re on the hunt), which means that between writing papers and blog posts I’ll also be painting, knocking down walls, starting a new garden, and who knows what else. Luckily, we have some wonderful friends I know we can count on to eat, drink and remodel with us. But still. If we move during the semester, y’all say a prayer or chant or whatever it is that you do for us.

Plus, I find inspiration in my classmates who have figured out how to balance work and school plus parenting or wedding planning or other demanding things. I’m looking forward to another semester with you all! Good luck, everyone!

Newsworthy: An app to grease the wheels of citizen journalism

newsworthyI work for a news organization that covers the entire state of Alabama. That’s a lot of news. We’d love to be able to get a reporter to every single significant event, but it’s simply not possible. We’d have to employ almost every resident in the state.

… But there’s an idea. What if we could easily organize and utilize photos, videos and the basic facts from the people all over Alabama who were there for each of these significant events — whether it’s a traffic accident, a planned event or a spontaneous celebrity sighting?

Citizen journalism is not a new idea, and news organizations are already collecting these things by mining social media. But the multimedia must be shared publicly (by the user), and then news organizations must either embed it (if that option is available) or ask the user for permission to use it. And believe me, chasing down the photographer is not always easy. Some news organizations already have easy ways for people to submit content — like CNN’s iReport.

But what if you, as a citizen journalist, want to share your story/photo/video with more organizations than just CNN? Do you research different news organizations and figure out how to submit to each? One might prefer an email, while another asks you to download their app and submit through it. But just how many apps and email addresses is the average citizen journalist willing to use?

Enter Newsworthy — an app that makes it easy for citizen journalists to get their photos, videos and news in front of a number of verified news organizations for publication consideration. Before I decided on too many details of the potential app, I asked for some feedback.

The survey

Here's how the survey looked on my iPhone. There's some vertical scrolling involved, but no horizontal scrolling or pinching to zoom required!
Here’s how the survey looked on my iPhone. There’s some vertical scrolling involved, but no horizontal scrolling or pinching to zoom required!

After seeing the limited survey-building and analytics options offered in the free version of SurveyMonkey when creating a survey earlier this semester, I decided to use Qualtrics for this survey. I was pleased to see more question and results options, as well as a clean mobile presentation.

Although I didn’t use SurveyMonkey, I did attempt to follow some of their wise tips, including keeping the survey short with almost all closed-ended questions. I know I dislike being required to answer open-ended questions in order to complete a survey, so while I required answers to all multiple choice and ranking questions, I let the one short-answer question be optional. I also saved it for the end so it didn’t discourage respondents from taking the rest of the survey. I kept the whole thing as simple and straightforward as possible and attempted to order the questions in a way that would make sense to the survey taker.

I started off asking a few basic personal questions: Age, gender, education level and basic news media preferences. Then, respondents were asked if they ever had shared photos, videos or information with news organizations and if they would use an app that allowed them to easily do so. At this point, I employed skip logic to direct anyone who answered “no,” they would not use such an app, to the “thank you” message at the end, because all the following questions asked about specific preferences for a citizen journalism app.

I shared the link to my survey multiple times on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, and unfortunately I did not receive a large response on my final survey – 20. Earlier, I crafted an initial survey that received 37 responses, but I left out the important basic personal questions and I learned from the open-ended and “other” responses that I needed to word some of the questions more clearly. I’ll focus on the results from the final survey here.


The majority of my final survey respondents fall into the 18-34 age range at 55 percent, followed by 50 and older at 30 percent and 35-49 at 15 percent. The gender breakdown is 55 percent female and 45 percent male. All but one respondent said they check news on at least one medium daily. The other said she checked 2-3 times a month. “Online – desktop/laptop” and “Smartphone/tablet” overwhelmingly took the top two spots on the question that asked respondents to rank news media in order of most to least preferred. Desktop/laptop got eight votes for No. 1 and eight votes for the No. 2 spot; Smartphone/tablet got seven for No. 1 and seven for the No. 2 spot.

In my very small sample, age and gender did not appear to have a significant effect on media preferences. Higher education has long correlated with a better grasp of what’s going on in the news, according to Pew Research Center and as again was proven in their 2013 News IQ quiz, so I decided to specifically examine citizen journalism participation divided by education level.

Of the four people with at least one post-graduate degree, two said they have submitted content to news organizations before and would use an app like Newsworthy to submit to their news organization(s) of choice. The other two had not submitted content and were not interested in the app. I think it’s worth noting that the two who were not interested fell into the 18-34 age range, while the two who were interested selected 50 and older (again, no strong age patterns when the survey was viewed as a whole).

Of the 12 people with a bachelor’s degree, nine had submitted content to news organizations before, and all said they would use an app like Newsworthy, with seven saying they’d rather restrict their submissions to only their preferred news outlets.

Of the four who attended college but did not receive a 4-year degree, half had never submitted content, and one said he would not use the app, with the other three preferring to send content only to their choice of news outlet.

I found it interesting that those with bachelor’s degrees were most willing to engage in citizen journalism, but again, because of the small sample size, it’s tough to tell if that’s truly a wider trend.

While only 65 percent of the total sample have actually submitted content to a news organization before,  a total of 85 percent said they would use an app like Newsworthy — 25 percent said yes and 60 percent said they’d like the option to submit to a news organization of their choice. The frequency with which people would use the app varied fairly evenly from once a week to less than once a month.

I expected all citizen journalists to expect credit for their submitted content, but 41 percent said they’d be happy if their submission were published at all. Another 47 percent said they’d want to be credited by name. And two people (12 percent) said they’d have to be paid to submit. To be notified that their content was used, 41 percent said they’d like to be emailed, and 35 percent said they’d like a combination of choices from email, text and push notification. Also, one person said they would not want to be notified, so I think it’s important to allow full customization of notifications, including turning them off.

The majority of respondents (71 percent) wanted only verified news organizations to be able to use their content rather than having it visible and downloadable to the general public. Submitting specifically for use by verified news organizations was my original idea for the app anyway. I think this would be the easiest way to hold the publishers of the submissions accountable since news organizations should be easier to track down than private individuals. If a large number of users were to express the desire to have a more public profile in the future, the possibility of such an option would be examined at that time. But especially since several respondents expressed in the open-answer question concerns about having their content manipulated or taken out of context, restricting viewing and downloading to verified news organizations seems like the safest route.

Here’s the full report:

Newsworthy Survey

Survey Weaknesses

I shared the link to this survey on my personal social media accounts. That of course means all my respondents are at least somewhat active online, which is not representative of the general population. Also, because I work in the journalism industry, many of my friends and followers are either journalists or interested in the news — perhaps more so than the average person. Although the support for an app like Newsworthy shown through the survey is encouraging, I’m afraid that may be because many of my friends and followers would very specifically be its enthusiastic target audience. Perhaps one of my survey questions should have asked respondents to describe their line of work.

The app

Already, news organizations are increasingly connecting with their audiences thanks to digital tools. If you took the time to do the research, you could probably figure out how to get photos of a news event you witnessed to several news organizations. Maybe one prefers to have images tweeted to them, but the next one doesn’t really check Twitter as often as they should so it takes an email to get their attention. You want to get your photos in front of as many news organizations as possible, but you don’t have all day to track down email addresses, apps and Twitter accounts — much less each organizations’ submission preferences.

The Newsworthy app would grease the wheels of citizen journalism, making it easier for people to connect with news organizations without spending all day figuring out how to do it. There are two types of accounts, both free, for Newsworthy: citizen journalist accounts and news organization accounts. I will refer to them in the following descriptions as CJ accounts and NO accounts, respectively.

Citizen Journalist Accounts

When citizen journalists set up an account, they will agree to terms stating any contributed photos or videos are unaltered and were either produced by them or shared with permission from the creator and that any information they include is truthful. If they only have limited information, they would still be encouraged to submit that, and the professional reporters could track down the rest of the stories that they chose to pursue. The default CJ account settings would allow any verified news organization in the world to use the citizen journalist’s submissions. But because several survey respondents said they would rather only share their content with news organizations they approved, there would also be an option to set your CJ account to “private.”

Once a CJ account is set to private, the user must select at least one news organization that will be able to use their content. After that, the user can “enable” as many other news organizations as they’d like, and news organizations will also be able to send requests to view/use content. Think of it sort of like Twitter: The default is a public account (open to all verified news organizations), but you can tighten your privacy settings further if you’d like. When an account is set to private, a news organization can request to see and use CJ content (which a CJ can approve or deny), and users can also elect to share content with any news organizations of their choice (without news organizations sending a request).

When a CJ account is signed in, the user will first see the submit page, which allows them to take a photo or video as well as choose from their device’s photo/video library. An icon at the top allows the user to go to their profile page, which displays everything they’ve shared on Newsworthy so far. Each item will show how many times it has been downloaded by verified news organizations and by which ones.

When submitting content, citizen journalists either type in the location or enable GPS on their phone to show where something happened. In addition to location and date, which are required fields, users will be required to submit a description of what’s happening in the photo or video. A short list of suggestions for details to include will appear in small type above the description field for guidance. There will also be a tags field for key words, which will help news organizations locate items through basic searches.

In addition, users will set their “byline name” for crediting purposes when setting up a CJ account. Users will also provide a working email address (which will be confirmed as the account is set up) and an optional telephone number to be contacted by verified news organizations in case of questions. Users can choose to be notified by push notification, email, text message, a combination or not be notified at all when their CJ account’s content is downloaded by a NO account. I chose not to limit the notification type because I got such varied answers to that question on the survey.

News Organization Accounts

When a news organization sets up an account, they will agree to terms that state they will credit any citizen journalists by name when using photos or videos and use content responsibly by not taking anything out of context. In order to be verified as a news organization, anyone setting up a NO account must use use an email address with a company domain that matches the domain on which the Newsworthy content will be published (similar to what’s required when setting up Google Authorship).

When a NO account is signed in, they will see a screen consisting of thumbnails of the top-downloaded images and videos, with a prominent search icon and field at the top. News organizations can do a simple search with a few key words or an advanced search by filling in fields for key word tags, location, date and/or a specific user’s name. When they click on a thumbnail shared by a public account, they’ll be directed to a page where they can view the larger image, its associated details and download the full-size image. From here, they can also click on the content submitter’s byline to view more items they’ve submitted, on the user’s profile. Thumbnails from private accounts will have a lock icon beside them. When a news organization clicks a thumbnail with the lock icon, they’ll be prompted to send the CJ user a request to view and use their content, which the CJ user can choose to either accept or deny.

Addressing Potential Problems

Ideally, every news organization and citizen journalist using the app will respect each other and follow ethical practices. However, people are not perfect, and everyone can’t be expected to have high standards. In cases of objectionable behavior, there would be options for blocking and reporting.

If a user has noticed a news organization not following the rules (crediting properly or manipulating content), the user can block and/or report the NO account. Blocking will prohibit the NO account from using content from that CJ account in the future. Reporting will require a short message detailing the reason for the report of the NO account and will be submitted to the app administrators, who would decide whether the NO account is, indeed, being abusive and deserves disabling or further action. Repeatedly reported abuse from a particular organization (who had signed up with more than one email address) would result in a blocked domain. NO accounts would also be able to report CJ accounts — for false information or false identities.


This app allows citizen journalists to get their news — quite possibly news that no professional journalists have captured — in front of major news organizations. But for the app to work, those major news organizations must “buy in.” If I were to create this app, I would actively recruit news organizations to sign up for verified accounts to give the app a try. Being able to tout big media names as possible outlets for publication would attract more and better content from citizen journalists seeking exposure for their interest or geographic areas as well as their names.
But it’s not just a win for citizen journalists. An app like this would make it much easier for news organizations to pull a photo or video, credit its creator, and legally use it — rather than chasing down social media users to gain permission to use their work, or worse, simply use it without permission. I’m sure that news organizations would still look to social media for content, but as Newsworthy grows, they would have to depend on social media for quality photos and video less and less. Newsworthy would be a place that news organizations could pull multimedia tagged by location and topic, knowing that they have permission to use it and how to credit it without having to chase down social media users.

Author’s note: Newsworthy is not a real app — at least yet. I haven’t decided yet whether I will develop it. If you have an interest/talent in app building and might like to partner with me on this, please drop a comment below!

Adventures in digital communications

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