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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