Archive for September, 2012

Breaking news or bogus rumour – verifying online material

In the last few years, Twitter (and other social media) has become increasingly important for journalists.  It can be where news breaks; it can be used to for story sourcing (it allows direct, quick contact with potential sources and new information, as Spencer Howson pointed out many, many weeks ago) or even pressuring talent.

However, it can also be home to unverified rumour, misinformation or deliberate falsehood.  The plethora of “Celebrity XYZ’s death” hoaxes prove this, with Morgan Freeman the latest in a long line of people sent to an early and inaccurate grave via Twitter.  And, as I discussed in previous weeks, while journalists need to be speedy, they still need to be accurate and any mistakes are potentially very damaging to a journalist’s (and news organisation’s) credibility (and if they are correcting their errors properly, will be on public display for the rest of time).

Unfortunately, as Susan Hetherington discussed in the Week 8 lecture (the crowd sourcing one – blimey, I’m getting a lot of mileage from that 50 minutes), journalists can’t just dismiss Twitter out of hand – news of both Whitney Houston’s and Michael Jackson’s death did indeed “break” first via tweets.

So how can journalists ensure they don’t get caught in a Twitter (or other social media, or online source) trap?

Incorrect by default

A quick look through the Poynter Institute site pulled up this interesting quote from the New York Times social media producer Daniel Victor.

Essentially, Victor begins, when looking at breaking news, with a “default” assumption that “everything I see is full of crap.”  He says he will only tweet/ retweet it himself once it’s fully proven to be accurate.  “If I can poke any holes in it, I’m not tweeting it, and I do my best to needle it like hell,” he said.

He says he puts the info through a “verification gauntlet” – evaluating the account by number of tweets and followers, account verification, the poster’s spelling and grammar.  Links need to be to reliable website and tweets need to actually reflect the story.  There’s a couple of other things he does for quotes and videos as well (check the link for full details).

But is Daniel Victor the only one who does these things?  Or do these checks form some kind of “rule-set” for verifying online info?

Twitter rules, ok?

By the looks of it, Victor’s process for verifying online information is pretty similar to how other reputable journalists do it.  A quick search turns up a number of good checklists (which I’ll definitely be printing and sticking to the wall somewhere).

Paul Bradshaw, from the Online Journalism Blog, has written a comprehensive, three layer test/ checklist for verifying online information.  I won’t try and extensively quote from it, as it’s quite long, but it’s well worth a read.

Essentially, Bradshaw breaks it down into:

1. Content – is the information “too good to be true”?

Is the information recent and is it frequently updated – this might indicate it’s accurate.  Though watch out for photo and video manipulation

2. Context – how reliable is the author?

Age of the (Twitter) account, who the person is following (and being followed by), correlation with other accounts, reliability of any links are all relevant questions.

3. Code – how accurate are the websites; are they who they claim to be?

Check the website address and domain name (government departments are usually .gov and   sites with .com “offer no guarantees).  Run a Whois search and find out who the address is registered to.  Look at older, archived versions of any web pages and look for changes.

Obviously, this is quite a brief summary of Bradshaw’s points.  The full story has a lot of good examples to follow as well.

Former journalism educator Peter Verweij has written his own “Seven top tips for verifying tweets” – the suggestions are mostly the same, but also adds the idea of “crowd sourcing” the verification (asking your followers whether something seems genuine – I personally think this might be a bit risk), as well as thinking about “damage control” – the risk/ damage that could be caused by publicising or not.

Craig Kanalley, from Media Helping Media, also has a list for assessing tweet reliability (including checking the time stamp for the tweet in question).

Craig Silverman (from Poynter’s “Regret the Error”) has also put together a roundup of various journalists and news organisations’ (such as the BBC) social media verification practices (piece was written for the Columbia Journalism Review).

Between all these sources, I should have enough ideas about how to verify social media claims and information.  It might seem like overkill (and I am a perfectionist), but I think the ramifications of reporting incorrect information, or falling for the ever-traditional Twitter hoax, are too great to be ignored.

Talk to your sources (and nobody is foolproof)

A common piece of advice across all the above is to actually talk to your sources.  Try and get in contact with them, either physically (phone call etc) or directly through Twitter (if the person has broken some news).  Hopefully, communicating directly will give a better indication of the source’s validity.

However, saying that, I feel I must end on a cautionary tale.* Earlier this year, the BBC posted a photo to accompany a story about a massacre in the ongoing Syrian conflict.  However, the photo was actually from the Iraq war in 2003.  The article is well worth reading and provides an insight into the BBC’s “verification hub” and the thought processes and decisions around publishing information sourced from users.  But the fact even the BBC is making crucial errors just goes to show that, as hard as journalists may try to verify their material, mistakes can still be made.  We are all fallible.  Nobody is foolproof.

*Link retweeted weeks ago by Susan Hetherington, from one of my previous journalism tutors.


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Online Crowd Sourcing – getting the public to do our work for us?

Today’s post is based on last week’s Online Journalism lecture, particularly Susan Hetherington’s discussion about “crowd sourcing”.

Robert Niles from the Online Journalism Review says “crowd sourcing”, in a journalism context, is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story.  It’s an old source (2007), but I think the definition is still relevant.

A more recent definition might be this (from this short video) – “Crowd is sourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks to an undefined large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.”

Either way, crowd sourcing involves, from my understanding, recruiting people from, say, the general public, to help provide information on a large scale, or help on a task that may be too overwhelming for a single journalist (or team of journos) to manage on their own.

Susan pointed out that this isn’t a new idea – the video above mentions that the original Oxford dictionary was, in fact, crowd sourced.  “Readers of the English language” were invited to send in words and definitions and they received six million responses.  However, it took 70 years to produce the first edition.

At this point, I had flashbacks to a certain episode of Blackadder III (thanks BBC for putting up a couple of clips).

Nowadays, online crowd sourcing can certainly speed things up.  Former BBC journalist, and now journalism educator, Professor Alfred Hermida, says Web 2.0 technologies (so social media etc) create an “infrastructure that allows geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to connect and collaborate over the Internet without any central coordination.”  He says crowd sourcing allows journalists to “steer the audience by asking for data, analysis or help to cover events or issues.”

What can we crowd source?

Hermida says crowd sourcing can be broken down into three broad layers.  Each of these layers, to me, seems to be an increasing scale of reader involvement in the process of gathering and creating news.

1. General Observation – Hermida says this involves collecting data from people about things     they come across in their daily life and then aggregating the information.  Here, the news organisation is “tapping into the eyes and ears of its audience”.

A very local example which springs to mind is Quest newspaper’s “Magpie Map”.  Readers can tweet the location of dangerous, swooping magpies (#magpiemap) and it’s collated into one large map.  A very basic example of crowd sourcing, but still very handy for those whose journeys to public transport are plagued by swooping birds this time of year.  It also uses Google maps, another handy online journalism tool!

2. Breaking news – audiences are asked to send in their photos, video or eye-witness accounts.  Hermida uses the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the 7/7 London bombings as examples – I think we can update that list with the recent(ish) Queensland floods, Christchurch earthquake or  the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle-East last year.  Any breaking news will work (I think), if a journalist needs to bring various strands of information together (e.g. the ABC’s coverage of the dispute earlier this year over Brisbane’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Musgrave Park).

3. Investigative journalism – readers help to analyse information, “crunch numbers or pore over documents.” Essentially, large amounts of information (that would be too big for a journalist to work with on their own) are turned over to readers and they can go through and highlight anything that seems important.  Journalists then need to collate these (potentially) mountains of crowd-sourced information (probably a big enough task in itself).

Both Hermida and Susan Hetherington used The Guardian’s experiment with crowd sourcing in investigating British MPs’ expenses claims in 2009 (which appears to be ongoing even now).  By all accounts, this use of crowd sourcing seemed pretty successful, with a massive reader response.  Have a look at that last link, from the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Michael Andersen, for some useful hints for a successful crowd sourcing experience (all lessons learned from The Guardian).

On the other hand, other attempts to crowd source have gone horribly wrong for the news organisations in question.  In 2011, a large number of Sarah Palin’s emails were released – the New York Times tried to use crowd sourcing to gather information and determine if there was anything interesting.  The response was not what they had expected.  Here, the way the New York Times went about it landed them some criticism, with readers essentially complaining they were doing the journalists’ work for them.

I think David Zax’s comments (from the link above) are pretty valid, particularly point one – know your audience.  In my opinion, what made The Guardian’s so successful was that they were asking readers to do something they had a semi-personal connection with – going through the expenses of their own elected MPs.  By comparison, I doubt the majority of Times readers had that same connection with Sarah Palin, particularly at a time long after she was in the running for Vice-President.

At the end of the day, I think crowd sourcing has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool.  However, as Susan Hetherington reminded us – crowd sourcing is only as good as the crowd itself.  Journalists will get garbage information or information that has not been independently verified.  We still need to do our own checks and balances, because let’s face it.

For each genius that helps us, we’ll probably get a few Baldricks.


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Should the New York Times have published a photo of US Libyan ambassador? The ethics of online photo galleries

Advance warning – this post will be mostly opinion on my part.  It’s based around something I found that I felt I had to get a few of my own thoughts down.

By now, most of us should be aware of recent events in the Middle-East, and the protests/ unrest that have apparently been sparked by a certain ‘film’…

One of the events that troubled me the most, and the one which I think has had the most media coverage so far, was the death of US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

A few days after, I was (still) reading about it, actively looking for new articles, when I came across this from the New York Times website.

It’s a response from their public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to reader concerns/ complaints about a photo the Time had run in an online photo gallery accompanying an article about overnight events in Libya (the attack on the US consulate)

Now – I hadn’t yet come across the Times article in question (I usually go to the ABC and BBC first), so off I went to check it out.

And I’ll freely admit I found the photo in question confronting and my initial reaction was that it crossed some sort of line.  And despite what I’m about to talk about, I still feel a tad uncomfortable about it, which is why I’m not going to link to the photo directly.  However, if you need to see the photo for yourself, it’s the final photograph in the picture gallery accompanying the story linked to at the beginning of Margaret Sullivan’s response.

In short, it’s an Agence France-Presse photograph showing “a man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr Stevens,” with severe blackening to the face (bruising or smoke damage, I’m unsure).
On the one hand, I understand the reader’s complaints highlighted in the Times’ response.  I think it would be distressing for members of Mr. Stevens family to see those images in the media and I also (partly) agree that the story may have been told well enough without that particular photo.

On the other hand, I can understand the Times‘ position.  There may be a clear “journalistic imperative” to running the photo – in many ways, the photo is a defining moment in the story the Times is trying to tell.  I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that they run photos of “Iraqis, Syrians” dead etc, so why not the ambassador.  While there are plenty of photos of civilian casualties, I don’t think many of them feature the victims in such a face-on close up.

However, what this incident does highlight for me is the benefit of an online photo gallery.  The photo was run “in the last position in the frequently updated gallery, where it would be less prominent.”  Thus, reporting the story online allowed the Times to still run their potentially controversial photo, but not give it the full emphasis that a front-page printing would – which I think would have been insensitive and certainly have overstepped the line.  Margaret Sullivan says she would not want to see the photo on the front page, where “its prominence and permanence would give it a different weight” (although, in my opinion, an online gallery makes it potentially even more permanent).

At the end of the day, while I still find photo’s publication slightly uncomfortable, I agree with the Times that an online gallery was the most suitable and ethical place to run it.  I certainly prefer it to running it on the front page, which I believe some other news organisations did.  It should also be noted that the Times did not go on and print it on the front page the next day.

As an aside, here’s the Timesresponse to a request from the US government to remove the photo – I think it’s good to see a news organisation “sticking to its guns” once it has made a decision (though if it had been an even more graphic photo, I think the removal request would be justified).


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Live Blogging vs Live Tweeting

Oh dear… I appear to have missed last week’s post.  Curse property law assignments!  However, now that I’m free of leasehold covenants, rent guarantees and indefeasibility for a couple of weeks – on with the blogging!

Today, I thought I’d take a brief look at live blogging compared with live tweeting, and why one might be preferable to the other.

Live blogging

According to Daniel Hurst, from the Brisbane Time, live blogging involves “ditching the normal news structure”.  Journalists instead provide regular, short updates on a continuous news story.  He says they can be used to cover a wide variety of stories, including:

– unfolding political stories, debates and elections

– severe weather events

– sporting matches

– riots and protests.

Essentially, Hurst said live blogs can be used for any topic in which an audience will be interested in ongoing updates.  He also said running live blogs for rapidly unfolding events makes it easier for readers to digest “bite-sized” pieces of information and that it’s easier for journalists to write short, sharp updates.  The Guardian’s Matt Wells makes some similar comments here.

It was also pointed out to us that live blogs can sometimes take a more conversational tone (though I’d assume the context of the news item in particular would determine if this was appropriate).  For example, check out the ABC’s live blog coverage of the Olympics Closing Ceremony – possibly the best example of a “conversational tone” I’ve seen.  Obviously a more “light-hearted” story like the Closing Ceremony could allow you to be personal and less serious, as compared to say, live-blogging a natural disaster.

The other main benefit of live blogging that Hurst discussed was that it developed a two-way conversation with the reader – journalists can include social media (and other interactive media) to show reactions to news, as well as excerpts of analysis and comments from (and links to) other articles (even their competitors!).

However, live blogs don’t necessarily work for every story.  Channel 4’s technology correspondent Benjamin Cohen (quoted in Matt Wells’ piece above) says live blogs need a “lot of content to work” and also only really work if journalists have a big audience to read and share it.  He says they can also be confusing for new readers (because of the amount of content) and thus need continual “signposting” – good curating and management are to prevent a live blog becoming a “mishmash of tweets and comments with context.”  Finally, I find it interesting that Cohen also says, for some breaking stories, it’s actually more interesting to look at the Twitter stream for a breaking story – which leads nicely into my next point.

Live Tweeting?

Many people will be familiar with the idea of live tweeting – follow any journalist or news organisation on Twitter and, when they attend a press conference or breaking news event, you can be sure there’ll be a constant stream of updates letting the reader know exactly what’s going on (as best they can in 140 words).  The Poynter Institute’s Herbert Lowe describes live tweeting as a “standard tool” for breaking news.

However, Daniel Hurst was sceptical about live tweeting press conferences, and another Poynter Institute author, Matt Thompson, has given five (in my opinion) convincing reasons why a live blog might be better.

Firstly, Thompson does admit Twitter has some “key advantages”, namely that the software is easier to use (no live blogging client to try and embed in your site) and that it also allows you to engage with everyone who follows you (not just those visiting your site on a regular basis).

But he also points out that Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it difficult to capture the “flux of a speaker’s argument, or the back-and-forth in a panel discussion.”  It is good for tweeting “applause lines” though.

Of Thompson’s five points, I think the first two that running a live blog forces journalists to pay attention and forces them to write – warrant some discussion.  I’m not 100 per cent sure doing a live blog will force journalists to pay more attention.  I suppose you could argue the increased amount of information needed (or provided?) by a live blog means journalists would pay attention so they can write more (with the flipside being live tweeting journalists only looking/ listening for main points).  However, I think a live tweeting journo would still need to pay attention to all the information, so that he actually knows which pieces are the most important.

Thompson’s second point is something I could agree with entirely.  I’ve already mentioned, in my Speed vs. Accuracy post, that I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  I like the suggestion that the continual pressure of needing to provide longer updates every few minutes stops journalists from fretting over every word and sentence.  Hopefully, doing some live blogging might help break me from this habit.  Conversely, I think trying to live tweet something might make me more pedantic, as I try and condense all my ideas down into 140 concise characters.

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Correcting errors in online journalism

A recent report on the ABC’s Media Watch program about the reporting around Julia Gillard’s latest battles with the media got me thinking about how journalists go about correcting errors they may have made in their stories.

In this instance, the Australian made (in the print versions of their publication) “minor errors with major consequences,” according to Media Watch.  To correct them, they published two online statements acknowledging the mistakes had been made.  However, I notice that the corrections go no further than merely stating that certain claims were “wrong” and “are untrue”.

But in the online world, where the news moves so fast and stories are constantly updated, wouldn’t it be easier (and is there a temptation to) simply delete/ fix errors, sweep them under the carpet and pretend they never happened?

Common errors

While I think all journalists try their best to avoid errors, it’s probably unavoidable that some slip in from time to time.

According to Mallary Tenore, from the Poynter Institute, misspelled names are the most common errors.  For example, of the 56 corrections Poynter had run this year (as of May 12, 2012), 16% were apparently name misspellings.  The article quotes similar statistics for other news sources (e.g.  16% for the New York Times and 14% for the Los Angeles Times)

Corrections also need to be run for any incorrect assertions or misquotes, according to another Poynter Institute writer, Craig Silverman.  Silverman runs the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error page(s), which “tracks accuracy, errors & the craft of verification”.  It’s well worth checking out (and isn’t limited to American news).

At the end of the day, no matter what the error is, I think it’s vital that journalists try to correct them as soon as possible.  Otherwise, how can we claim to be a credible, trustworthy source?

Transparent correction

But what is the best way to correct errors journalists may have made?  Unsurprisingly, deleting errors and pretending they didn’t happen isn’t the best way to go about it.

Rudy Lee, from the Ryerson Review of Journalism, says a good corrections policy starts “with the understanding mistakes are inevitable,” and that transparency is the key.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has outlined some best practices in digital accuracy and correction.  In particular, they have three core principles that I think any online journalist would do well to remember.  I’ll briefly repeat them below:

1. “Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished.  News organisations do not rewrite history or make news disappear.”

2. “Accuracy is the foundation of media credibility…. we should resist unpublishing… we should publish corrections or update online articles as soon as we verify errors.”

3. “Transparency demands that we are clear with audiences about changes that have been made to correct/ amend or update digital content.  We should not “scrub” digital content, that is, simply fix it and hope that no one has noticed.”

The best way (and probably most logical way) to do this is to have a dedicated corrections page for each news organisation.  According to all the sources mentioned so far, this will help maintain credibility as journalists acknowledge their mistakes and, in doing so, assure readers that they are committed to accuracy.

For example, both the BBC and the ABC have their own dedicated corrections pages (both of which can be found by a quick Google search).  A quick glance at the page(s) allows a reader to see a complete history of all corrections that have been made (and importantly, an explanation of what is was wrong, not just “it was incorrect”).

Many news organisations also insert a note into a story, either at the beginning or end, to inform the reader that corrections have been made.

I particularly like the way the Columbia Journalism Review handles their corrections.  Not only do they have a dedicated corrections page, but they also put a strike through the original error, with the correction immediately following.  I quite like this, as I think it makes it very, very clear to the reader exactly what information has been changed (and they can see the changes visually at a glance, without needing to compare an old and new version of the story).  Finally, they also include a “Report an Error” button at the end of every article.  This will make it even easier for news organisations to have errors brought to their attention, as helping reader report errors makes them all into fact checkers (according to the Canadian Association of Journalists).

Unfortunately, not every news organisation seems as open.  I had a look around the Courier Mail’s website and was unable to find a corrections page, or even any clear instructions/ guidance about what to do if a reader finds an error.  If anyone else is able to find such a page, please let me know and I’ll correct this.  Knowing my technological skills, I might have missed it.

In summary, I guess there are three keys things I need to remember:

1. Mistakes happen, but don’t just delete them

2. Be open and transparent about errors and corrections (and try to fix them quickly)

3. Make it easy for readers to find corrections that have been made (and easy for them    to get in touch about mistakes you’ve yet to find)

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