The ABC has issued an editorial policy on User Generated Content that anticipates a partial ceding of control to the audience.

The policy describes User Generated Content as a fifth content category, sitting alongside news and current affairs, opinion, topical and factual and performance. User Generated Content will not always have to meet the ABC’s normal standards of impartiality, and will not always be moderated before being posted to ABC sites.

In a covering letter to staff, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said the new policy was “necessary to enable the ABC to continue to develop as a ‘town square’ where debate flourishes and different voices can be heard, and where the creative talents of users — both young and older — can be expressed.”

The policy introduces principles that are new to the ABC’s formal documentation — and which provide a hint of how the Charter of the organisation could be re-written in the wake of the government’s review of public broadcasting.

The new principles include the need to provide opportunities for users to interact with each other, and to use alternative paths to access ABC content. The policy anticipates that the ABC will increasingly be providing content to third party platforms, such as social networking sites, which it does not control.

It states:

The ABC takes editorial responsibility in proportion to its control of the media environment in which it operates. The ABC expects users who engage with the ABC‟s interactive services also to exercise responsibility for what they can control. The ABC aims to develop opportunities for user engagement while managing its risks, responding quickly to maximise benefits and to minimise harms.

The policy says that User Generated Content must always be clearly identified as such, but that the normal expectations of strict impartiality will not always apply:

The ABC does not require impartiality from users who generate content. The issues raised by users‟ submissions may be contentious. The ABC recognises that social and political activity is a necessary and desirable aspect of a healthy democracy, and that UGC will encompass that activity. It is the nature of online and interactive services that from time to time, particular perspectives may dominate due to the flow of contributions from users.

If User Generated Content is used within another content category — for example, within a news report — then it must meet the standards of that category. For example, news content submitted by users will be subject to the same verification as other news.

All User Generated Content must be moderated, but some may be moderated after being posted, or “reactively” — in response to complaints by other users.

At the same time, Auntie’s Director of Editorial Policies, Paul Chadwick, has issued a guidance note on the ticklish legal and ethical issues raised by using pictures from social networking sites in news reports.

Social networking sites are in some ways public spaces, yet in some ways private, says the guidance note. The media needs to consider the intention of the person posting the image before using it, any damage done to the person, and the public interest.