Great care should be taken when using online sources. Those conducting research should corroborate any information they find and check the identity of any contributor they wish to use.
The web presents us with a huge array of sources, domestic and international, amateur and professional. It would be a mistake to assume that all web sites produce content in accordance with UK laws on defamation, contempt of court and intellectual property.
As disputes over web page content can occur, it is advisable to save copies of every website used in BBC output. These can be sent to legal advisers before transmission and referred back to if any issues arise.
Special editorial approval is needed if research involves accessing sites containing obscene material. See here for more details (link only available for internal BBC users).
Certain research tools such as peer-to-peer file sharing software present legal and technical problems. Make sure all software is approved and properly installed before use.
Hoaxes and Spoofs
Many entertainment websites contain bogus information such as spoof news reports. Some campaign and activist sites mimic the domain name and design of an official source for reasons of satire or misinformation. Researchers must take care to perform thorough provenance checks before using material from a Web site. Many sites have an "about us" section revealing information about the site and contact details for its owners. Crosscheck these details with directory enquiries before making contact, as this lessens the chances of involving a hoax Web site. A simple background check is advised for any source or contributor we wish to use. Searching the web for references to a site's domain name may confirm its official status, but it might also reveal it to be a hoax.
Researchers can also conduct a "WHOIS" search to check the registration details of a domain name. This will often reveal the name, address and telephone number of a Web site's owner.
Although a Web site may look professional, it may in fact be authored by an amateur enthusiast. Amateurs may be a great source of information and expertise, but may also lack the objectivity, accuracy, copyright ownership and legal awareness of many professional sources.
As with any medium, hidden commercial or political agendas can shape a Web site's content. Researchers should check the links to and from a site as these can often reveal political or commercial affiliations. It is wise to question where the financing for a Web site comes from.
Out of Date Information
Even trustworthy sources can contain pages that have not been updated in years. Contextual information can provide an idea of the date it was authored, but always use recognised sources to corroborate any information found.
Social Media Sites
Individuals post material, including pictures, audio and video, which may reveal information about themselves, generally for the benefit of friends and acquaintances. Such material may cause embarrassment or worse if it receives the kind of wider distribution that re-use by the BBC implies. A balance needs to be struck between appropriate use of material that an individual may have unthinkingly put in the public domain and fairness to that individual.
Best Practice when Emailing Sources or Posting in Online Communities
Transparency is essential when dealing with the public. Use a BBC email address and plainly state that research is being conducted on behalf of the BBC. See here for the BBC policy on email use (link only available to internal BBC users).
Online communities do not always appreciate media interference. It is often better to privately approach the owner of message board, than to directly post onto a message board.
If participation in online communities is essential, it is advisable to use a departmental email address rather than a personal one.
Best Practice when Conducting Covert or Specialist Research
In certain limited circumstances special permission can be granted for covert research from appropriate senior managers. Editorial Policy should normally be consulted. When going undercover online, special care should be taken with security. A simple visit to a website can betray BBC interest to its owner. Even emails sent via free Web based services can be traced back to the BBC.
Adequate training can ensure that any potential problems can be identified and overcome. Do not leave such things to chance.