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Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Ethics issue for citizen snappers
Image of Prime Minister Tony Blair takes a photo on a cameraphone
Anyone with a cameraphone can tell their own story
Budding amateur photographers and citizen journalists should not be tempted to become star stalkers says the founder of an amateur photo agency.

Kyle MacRae, whose agency Scoopt represents mobile snappers so they get paid for their work, said there are serious ethical issues at stake.

Following the London bomb attacks and Asian tsunami, news outlets have been keen to exploit mobile snaps and video.

Cameraphone growth has let more people capture events as they happen.

Such hazy snaps usually taken by amateurs who witness events before they hit the headlines are proving valuable to traditional news organisations.

Although Mr MacRae is passionate about the potential impact witness or citizen journalists can have in changing what becomes newsworthy, he said that should not mean people go out deliberately searching for that elusive scoop.

This week, the Chartered Institute of Journalists also warned news organisations against actively encouraging people to do that, adding that people should be paid for their contributions too.

"The real issue here is an ethical issue if a bomb goes off and someone stops and takes a picture instead of helping," Mr MacRae told the BBC News website.

'Quality not an issue'

Pete Clifton, editor of the BBC News website, said that the most compelling image of all may have a market price, but he did not see it as a route that the BBC would be taking.

"The BBC News site does not anticipate paying for these contributions," he said.

"My feeling is that the vast majority of people simply want to join in our newsgathering process and nobody has been talking in terms of making money when contacting us.

"If people can make money then good luck to them."

Mr MacRae's agency, which had two delayed launches because they coincided with the 7 and 21 July, does exactly the same job as a professional photographer's agency, but it represents amateurs too.

He said with more citizen reporters capturing valuable images and getting paid for it, there was a concern that authenticity of images could be an issue.

I think citizen journalism has the potential to change what we think of as newsworthy events. A lot does not get reported because they have not been photographed
Kyle McRae, Scoopt

"At one level, I think people will probably try to hoax us, but we have to use common sense there. People may quite possibly stage events which we have to be wary of," he said.

But, he said, newspapers and other news outlets often had to deal with these problems too.

Scoopt has an expert on board who can closely examine images to ensure no digital tampering has gone on.

Newspapers and other publications can pay thousands for a "scoop" pictures or video, which is a big incentive for professionals and amateurs alike.

But Mr MacRae warned people against becoming "celebrity stalkers".

"We will certainly get the celeb images. We don't want to turn people into amateur paps, but that is part of what is going to happen, " said Mr MacRae.

If a snap of Prince Harry in Nazi uniform-type was submitted by one of Scoopt's member, for instance, it could feasibly fetch 10,000.

The quality of the image is not an issue, said Mr MacRae. If it is considered newsworthy enough, it will attract huge sums.

'Witness' journalism

The real value in citizen journalism is in how it changes what is considered to be newsworthy enough to be reported, said Mr MacRae.

Unlike professional photographers, the people Scoopt is interested in are the "witnesses" armed with cameraphones on the ground.

"If someone is there and gets the picture that is truly evocative and captures the moment, they deserve to be published," he said.

"Once people are in the habit of looking at the world through a camera lens, we are going to get a tremendous variety of photographs from anything under the Sun.

The bus blast

"I think citizen journalism has the potential to change what we think of as newsworthy events. A lot does not get reported because they have not been photographed," he explained.

Mr MacRae also thinks there is a lot of potential for people to make the news where they live, and to report events in their local areas much more effectively.

Some local stories could make photo features, but others could be about "blowing the lid", as he puts it, on local events.

The copyright deals for Scoopt members are the same for conventional professional photographers. They either get an exclusivity deal for a "hot" snap or a standard deal, for one-time publication, and a flat fee.

Scoopt splits the money 50-50 with the photographer.

When a registered member sends in a picture - which they can do via MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), via the website, or via e-mail - they are automatically given a three-month exclusive licence.

"Members of public do not necessarily know what a hot picture is. So now we vet the picture and if we don't think we could get an immediate deal, we tell them," explained Mr MacRae.

If it is not going to be a picture that gets a lucrative exclusivity deal, it means the photographer is free to do as he or she like with it, such as blog it, or post it to a photo sharing website.

Scoopt accepts mobile video too, but technical restrictions make it more difficult to send.

MMS has its drawbacks. The image may be taken on a high-quality megapixel cameraphone lens, but in the transfer process via GPRS, the image suffers, said Mr MacRae.

Scoopt advises people not to delete the original pictures from their cameraphones once sent, so that the higher quality original can be retrieved.

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