When a Southwest Airlines 737 developed a six-foot hole in the fuselage in mid-air recently, some passengers screamed, others prayed.

Shawna Malvini Redden tweeted.

Redden – a doctoral student at Arizona State University – turned on her smartphone as the plane descended over Yuma, Arizona for an emergency landing. Surprised to receive a usable cellular signal, she texted her husband, then began updating her Twitter page.

Emergency landing in Yuma. SW pilots are amazing!” she told her followers. “Loss of cabin pressure, hands down the Scariest experience of my life.” She quickly followed up by posting photos of the damaged plane on Twitpic.

“I just wanted people to know what happened,” Redden said in a phone interview. “When I was doing this, I only had 50 followers on Twitter, and most of them were my friends from college.”

Southwest Airlines mechanics work near a Boeing 737 on a tarmac in Yuma, Ariz., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011, after patching a large hole in the jetliner that made an emergency landing. (Yuma International Airport, Gen Grosse/AP)

Her online popularity soon skyrocketed. After the jet landed safely, news organizations discovered Redden’s photos online. While Redden and her fellow passengers sat more than two hours in the stricken plane on the Tarmac waiting for another aircraft to arrive, her photos began careening around the Internet.

“I heard from passengers around me that my photos had hit CNN, and then I looked at my Twitter feed, and all of the sudden, I had all of these reporters talking to me,” said Redden, who now has more than 800 Twitter followers. “It was shocking as a normal, quiet citizen.”

Amateur photos pose challenges

Redden isn’t the first passenger who’s tweeted out early news of an airline mishap. When a Continental jet slid off a Denver runway in 2008, one of the first reports was passenger Mike Wilson’s tweet: “Holy f****** s*** I was just in a plane crash!” But the Southwest mishap was especially well-documented by amateur photographers. At least three passengers had their photos picked up by the news media. The Associated Press even published a passenger photo of other passengers taking photos.

As it becomes common for people to snap pictures of news events and post them on social networking sites, journalistic organizations sometimes face difficult decisions about whether to publish or broadcast them. There’s little consensus in the news business on such issues as how to verify the accuracy of the photos, whether to contact the photographer before using the picture, and how copyright laws apply to photos on sites like Twitpic and Flickr.

“The last thing you wanted to do was post a picture that’s not legitimate,” said Cathaleen Curtiss, who was Vice President of global photography at AOL from 1997 to 2010. “But a lot of organizations think ‘we’ll get it out there, and then we’ll figure out the right thing to do.’”

The drive to “get it out there” has led to embarrassments. News sites have published fake photos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haitian earthquake, a tornado spinning past the Statue of Liberty, and even Sarah Palin wearing a bikini.

“There’s a lot of images floating around out there that aren’t what they claim to be,” said Associated Press photography director Santiago Lyon. He said AP’s policy on “citizen photos” requires editors to contact the photographer and verify each image before publishing it.

Other news organizations are more willing to take a chance on a compelling picture before it’s been thoroughly vetted. Curtiss said AOL’s policy during her tenure allowed editors to publish a photo immediately and keep it on AOL’s site for as long as two hours while attempting to contact the photographer. If a problem was detected or the photographer couldn’t be reached, the photo was removed.

“It answered the need to get it out as soon as possible,” Curtiss said, noting that it rarely took long to get in touch with photographers whose photos were legitimate. “If the person posted a picture on Twitpic, it’s not that difficult to reach back out to the person and check the facts.”

Talking directly with photographers also provides an opportunity for news organizations to work through the legal and financial issues that can arise from republishing material from a social media site. While it’s not uncommon for other websites to take photos from social networking sites without permission or compensation, it’s not necessarily legal.

“In the rush to be first, a lot of people are just lifting things,” said Mickey Osterreicher, a New York attorney who worked three decades as a photojournalist and is now General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. He said website owners often decide to gamble that photographers either won’t notice that their work has been republished or won’t understand that their copyright has been violated.

In general, photographers maintain the copyright to images they post on social networking sites, though some sites – such as Flickr – allow posters to grant limited redistribution rights if they choose. Typically, the law requires owners of other sites to contact the photographer to obtain consent before republishing the picture. And even if an amateur photographer posts a shot on a social networking site, that doesn’t preclude him or her from demanding payment from other sites that want to use it.

Curtiss -- the former AOL executiive -- says payments of $100 to $300 are typical for non-exclusive one-time use of newsworthy photos. But images of especially unusual events (or celebrities) can command much more, and Curtiss says many photographers are happy with less.

“A lot of times, people would say, ‘I don’t want anything. Just take it,’” Curtiss said.

Credit and courtesy

Shawna Malvini Redden – the tweeting Southwest airlines passenger -- said copyright issues never crossed her mind as she watched her photos go viral on the Web. She said many media organizations that used her images did indeed contact her in advance. (CBS News did so in a tweet:  “CBS Evening News w/Katie Couric would like to use your pics from plane credit to: Shawna Malvini Redden via Twitter?”)

“A couple people asked if they could use the pictures, and without thinking, I said ‘sure,’” Redden said.  “It’s kind of cool to see my name out there.”

But she’s distressed about news organizations that used her photos without permission or attribution.  And Redden says only one, Reuters, offered to pay her -- $100 for her shots.

“This experience for me is not about making money,” Redden said. “But the people who have run the photos without a photo credit is concerning to me. I teach communication classes and talk about plagiarism all day long.”

In recent days, she’s begun to use her Twitter feed to police such infractions. Noting the London Daily Mail had reprinted one of her photos with a credit only to Reuters, she tweeted, “Reuters does not own the copyright to my photo, nor have they yet licensed it.”  (A Reuters spokeswoman said Redden was properly credited when the picture was sent out on the wire, but the Daily Mail neglected to run the complete credit.)

“The courteous thing would have been to put my name up there,” Redden told me. “To see major news outlets not doing that is disappointing.”