Cash for catastrophes?
- 1 September 2016
When tragedy strikes, it has become commonplace to see witnesses capturing the scene on their smartphones. But a growing number of people are licensing those clips, and turning a profit from gruesome or tragic events. Sam Judah has taken a closer look at the industry that makes it possible.
"Capitalising on a horrible situation, that's what tugged at my heart," says Kim O'Connor, about the moral dilemma she faced over whether to make money out of the phone camera footage which has become one of the most-viewed viral videos of this year.
In May she was visiting the Cincinnati Zoo with her family, when a three-year-old boy clambered over a fence, and fell into the gorilla enclosure occupied by Harambe, a 440lb silverback.
Kim, an IT manager from Michigan, tried to comfort the boy's mother, while also urging spectators to keep quiet so as not to antagonise the gorilla any further.
She also filmed the events that unfolded on her smartphone. Harambe grabbed the boy and dragged him away from the screaming crowds. The zookeepers shot and killed the gorilla. The boy escaped without serious injury.
A media frenzy ensued and ultimately Kim's video was seen by tens of millions of people around the world. A slew of news organisations sought Kim's permission to use the footage, many of them offering money for an exclusive deal. She signed a contract with one of them, a company called ViralHog. That agreement meant that Kim was no longer deluged with direct requests for the footage - ViralHog took on the job of fielding them. It also earned Kim "tens of thousands" of dollars, she says.
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It's a striking example, but Kim is not alone - similar deals have been made on far more extreme videos. Earlier this year smartphone footage from the Dallas police shooting, in which five officers were killed, was licensed in a similar way, and a number of videos from the fatal Shoreham air crash crash, in which 11 people lost their lives in the UK last year, were soon being sold for a fee.
But how does the system work? How do you turn a viral news video into tens of thousands of dollars?
I paid a visit to Jukin Media, one of a new breed of agencies that exists to do just that.
"We are a media company that sources and represents viral content. We curate content. We provide viral clips to TV, advertising and digital publishing," explains David O'Hare, who heads up the US firm's London office.
The process is relatively simple. First, scour social media and the web for videos with viral potential, then try to strike a deal with the owner to "represent" the content. "Usually we'll come to a revenue split, usually 50/50," says David.
The money comes both from advertising that runs alongside the clips on social media platforms, and by selling the footage directly to news organisations who want to republish it on their own websites, or show it on TV.
David describes Jukin Media as an entertainment company, and indeed, the vast majority of the content it licenses is fairly benign. "Girl catches HUGE catfish", "Husky protects owner" and "Incredible onion chopping skills", are typical titles.
Some of the material skirts into darker territory, however. Car crashes, and what look like horrific accidents pepper the firm's YouTube channel, although David says the firm researches every video, and would never use a clip if someone had died, or was seriously injured.
But following my visit I found footage from the Shoreham air crash for sale in another of their online libraries. When I asked David about this he told me that "in very rare instances, we've sourced and licensed videos like this - at the request of clients in news".
Which raises a few obvious questions: what is the role of news organisations in this new viral video marketplace? Does the BBC pay for footage of tragic events captured by witnesses on their smartphones?
"The majority of user-generated content on BBC news output has been given freely," says Declan Wilson, the BBC's North of England bureau editor.
So occasionally the BBC does pay for smartphone footage, if it is central to an important story, and if there is a strong editorial justification for doing so. "We have to be very careful with how we spend our money," Declan explains, "but there are some situations when there is one video everyone just has to obtain to tell that story."
Not everyone is comfortable with the practice of selling mobile videos of tragic events. Some have questioned the ethics of witnesses who choose to monetise footage of events which they have chanced upon as an ordinary bystander. Increasingly though it is that sort of striking viral footage which is making money.
"When you get a lot of eyeballs on something, you get a lot of money. But there's been no talk of what would be just and fair in the world, and would be good for us to do as people," says Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications at Syracuse University.
"I think it's an ethical discussion we should be having at this point given how many instances we've seen out there now. I would say it's never right to monetise tragedy."
Never right to monetise tragedy? In one sense that's always been the business of commercial news organisations - and in recent decades we've all become familiar with the idea of journalists racing to tragic events with their cameras rolling. So does Jennifer see any distinction between a passer-by snatching some footage on their phone, and the traditional freelance or agency news camera operator?
"I would say that's where it becomes journalism," she says. "That's different from the person who's just there at the right time. They have to be trained to do that skilfully, and to present that information in a balanced way. I do think there's a morality issue there."
I raised these issues with Ryan Bartholomew, CEO of ViralHog - the company that snapped up Kim's Harambe video as well as the Dallas shooting footage and some Shoreham air crash material. He was very upfront about how the company operates. The company's logo is a pig with a greedy look on its face, holding a video camera in one hand, and a bundle of cash in the other.
"We do not take a political or moral position on the content," Ryan says. "The thing is, a video that doesn't get represented and protected, and is let out into the wild, will get monetised and distributed regardless."
Ryan is referring to online pirates who routinely duplicate popular videos and re-upload them to social media, hoping to piggyback on the success of the original, and make a slice of the advertising revenue. Part of Viralhog's role is to police those duplicates, and either have them removed, or reclaim any revenue they generate, splitting the income with the clip's original owner. Ryan also says that the company and its clip providers do also, on occasion, donate part of the income from a video to a suitable charity.
Speaking about footage of the Shoreham air crash in particular, he says "It is a tragic event, we have a lot of content that is very sad, but the question is - what would happen if it wasn't represented?"
That's exactly the point he made to Kim when convincing her to monetise her clip through ViralHog, a decision she wasn't initially comfortable with.
"I wasn't certain about it, and I prayed about it" she says. "But they said 'Kim if you don't monetise it, someone's going to, so why not let it be you instead of someone else.' "
Kim says it might not be the right decision for everyone, but explains that she had good intentions for the money. Her brother was facing a substantial medical bill after being successfully treated for cancer and the windfall helped cover the costs.
She says her faith played a major role in her final decision to monetise the clip.
"I prayed about it, and Ryan [at Viralhog] answered all the questions I had. So I just thought the whole thing was meant to be. It was fate. It was God's hand."
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