In the 2017 First Quarter IRE Journal, Fergus Bell of Dig Deeper Media wrote about lessons from Electionland, one of the largest social newsgathering operations ever performed over the course of one day. More than 600 journalism students and experienced journalists worked together to monitor and verify social content around indicators of voter suppression on Election Day.
IRE members can read Fergus’ column by downloading a PDF of the IRE Journal. Below, Fergus details key steps in the social verification process.
- Find the first instance of the content. Search back across as many social platforms as possible to find the first time the image occurred. You should focus your attention on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever network is most prominent in the region you’re working in. Keep going back until you can’t find an earlier example. Next, perform a reverse image search using Google or TinEye to check that the image isn’t from an older story or previous event. Is it from a hurricane that happened a couple of years ago or a protest from a previous election cycle? Once you are fairly confident you have an original piece of content, continue to the next steps.
- Review the creator’s social history. This means looking at what they have previously posted, across all of the platforms where they might be present. People use the same usernames across multiple networks, so that’s a good starting point for any search. You also want to identify what physical locations they may have posted from previously. If they’ve posted from that location or about that subject in the past, before this event occurred, then the case for authenticity is stronger.
- Pick up the phone and talk to the source. If you can’t, then at least take your communication with them to a private message. You don’t need all your communications to play out in the open, and this gives you the chance to ask questions to aid in your verification. Requesting permission to publish or broadcast their photo or video when you talk is not only good for the clearances you will certainly need, but it also helps reaffirm that this is the original source. If people don’t have the right to let you use their content, they can get pretty jumpy if you ask them formally for that permission.
- Corroborate the details of the event that’s depicted, independent of what the original source has told you. If you’re verifying content that comes from another country or from a community where English isn’t the primary language, translating all text and audio might help confirm a time or location. You should also consult with independent experts – folks who might have been to the place in question or have more detailed knowledge of the subject matter. This person could be a trusted colleague or someone that your organization has used in the past.
- Look for other sources who can provide confirmation. Were there other eyewitnesses unconnected to your source? Did you have your own reporter or stringer there? Would local authorities be in a position to offer confirmation?
- Before you publish, identify someone in the newsroom who can sign off on the verification you have performed. Nothing should ever go out that has been seen by only one set of eyes.
Fergus Bell is a journalist and news consultant. He is an experienced editor and leading expert in digital newsgathering and the verification of user-generated content (UGC). Bell was the Associated Press’ first global social media and UGC editor and is a founding member of the First Draft News Coalition. In 2015 he founded Dig Deeper Media, where he advises broadcasters and publishers on social and digital newsgathering, newsroom innovation and workflows. He is an advisor to several news-focused start-ups.