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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 17:55 GMT
Readers take snapshot of history
David Otway's picture of the oil depot blaze
Dr David Otway captured an image of blazing tanks from an airliner
When David Otway took his digital camera with him on a flight from Stansted to Ireland on Sunday, he had no idea his pictures would soon be published across the world.

But then Dr Otway had not realised as he boarded his plane that he would be flying near one of the largest fires in Europe since 1945.

His dramatic images of the massive blaze at the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire were just some of the photographs taken by members of the public and used by news outlets, including the BBC.

His instincts highlight a rising trend in which ordinary people are using digital cameras or mobile phones to capture events, often beating professional journalists.

Dr Otway, a chemistry lecturer who commutes to Cork every week, began to take pictures when he saw "lots of fog and a great black cloud" and a fellow passenger told him about the fire.

My first thought was that it was a really big news event and I wanted to share the experience
Dr David Otway
After landing in Ireland, he downloaded the images to the picture-sharing website Flickr and emailed them to the Daily Telegraph and the Times newspapers, as well as the BBC News website.

The Telegraph ran one of his pictures on Monday and his pictures were among several from readers published on this website.

Share the experience

Dr Otway said: "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment.

"My first thought was that it was a really big news event and I wanted to share the experience and pictures with people."

Dr Otway's reaction, which he says was nothing to do with the "glorification" of a serious incident, was typical of many people who create user generated content - or UGC as it is labelled by the industry.

Picture-led story

Vicky Taylor, the editor of the BBC News website's Interactive section, said 6,500 photographs of the blaze were sent to yourpics@bbc.co.uk - a record for the site.

Picture galleries of the fire also received a large amount of reader traffic - 657,367 page impressions on Sunday. "This was clearly a picture-led story," she said.

Ms Taylor said the 7 July bombings in London were an important marker in UGC when readers sent the BBC News website 1,000 photographs - including some from the blast sites on the Tube - and 20,000 emails.

The Madrid bombings in March 2004 and the Asian tsunami last December had also attracted contributions from readers.

Safety is paramount

But there are concerns about the trend. Publishers have to make sure that the safety of amateur photographers is "paramount" and they should also not be encouraged to break the law in quest of a story, Ms Taylor says.

It was also important that any pictures were verified as authentic.

Tim Gopsill, of the National Union of Journalists, backs up the fears that keen amateurs could put themselves in dangerous situations.

Warren McKenzie's picture of the oil depot blaze
Warren McKenzie took this image of the fire from a nearby house
"Publishers should only use images if they can guarantee that they were taken responsibly," he said.

But the union also fears that publishers are "soliciting pictures on the cheap" and its national executive recently adopted a provisional motion calling for a code of practice for "citizen journalism".

Although the motion admits digital technology is here to stay, it says publishers should protect amateurs' copyright while ensuring that amateur images do not replace the work of professional journalists.

Added extra

Ms Taylor says that anyone who sends a picture to be published on the BBC News website agrees that they will not receive payment, and they will retain the copyright of their image.

She adds that material from readers is clearly labelled and not presented as BBC material.

Most readers who send in contributions - like Dr Otway - do so out of a sense of altruism and desire to share their experiences, she added.

She said: "It gives an insight into a story which we would otherwise be unable to get. Journalists still cover the story in the usual way, but the content from readers is an added extra.

"The public want to take pictures. It has become common practice and we can't unlock that."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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