Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tweet First, Verify Later

What a long way we’ve come.

Back in the halcyon days of the Internet – and even today, in some circles – the amateur’s presence on the Internet led to derisive descriptions of pajama-wearers, basement-dwellers, illegitimate fools whom the mainstream media – and professionals of any ilk – should ignore.

No longer. Those amateurs – and those professionals who exist outside officialdom – are increasingly being sought after as original sources, especially in fast-breaking new stories, according to a recent study, “Tweet First, Verify Later,” by Nicola Bruno, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His study may be read in a PDF here.

Bruno studies a handful of American and British news agencies who handle “social media content” in varying ways, and to varying effect. He quotes journalist Nik Gowing who says, “In a moment of a crisis what is the difference – if any – between the staff reporter who observes, writes, blogs then files an article for an established media organization, and the motivated amateur or quasi professional who does exactly the same for a web or blog site?” Increasingly, Bruno is discovering, there is no difference in the eyes of the media, particularly on breaking news.

Bruno studied how CNN, the BBC, The Guardian, and other outlets have used social media to mine information on breaking news stories ranging from the 2009 Iran revolution to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Interestingly, he finds that the news organizations are relying heavily on Twitter for breaking news alerts – which kind of flies in the face of a previous Pew Internet study which shows that the relationship is fairly one-sided – the media may go to Twitter for news, but Twitter users aren’t flocking to traditional media to find news.

The study shows interesting contrasts between how these various news organizations use social media and how they verify the information they find.

Here’s what Bruno says:
Contrary to other news organizations, the BBC considers as paramount the principle of verification and fact-checking of each and every online resource. Before informing the other BBC reporters at the World Desk or BBC World about an interesting online source, “We always check out each and every image, video or key contact before we broadcast them, to make sure they are genuine and to resolve any copyright issues. When it’s impossible to do that – such as with content sent from Iran or Burma – when contacting the contributors is very hard to do or might put them in danger, we interrogate the images, using BBC colleagues who know the area and the story to help identify them.”
Further, James Morgan with the BBC, Bruno writes, subjects his sources to other tests of authenticity, from considering the context of his or her tweets or Facebook posts of interest with what the user posts in general, to checking on things like IP addresses, cell phone prefixes, et cetera.

CNN, by contrast, takes a more “Web 2.0” approach, leaving its iReport unvetted and unverified as a general rule, Bruno says, but vetting and verifying anything that gets an official CNN stamp. Reactions to unverified news, however, is a problem news outlets are going to have to learn to deal with. Bruno points out an instance in 2008 when an iReporter submitted a hoax story on Apple chairman Steve Jobs suffering a heart attack. Though the story was never broadcast on CNN nor stamped with the official iReport stamp, its mere presence on the website caused Apple’s stock to plummet 10 percent in 10 minutes and triggered an SEC investigation, per Bruno.

These varying approaches, Bruno discovered, remained fairly consistent during the news response to the Haiti earthquake. CNN was less hesitant to go with unverified material, though it did offer some iReport material that was verified. The BBC was more cautious, but overall, these news outlets relied more than 50 percent on social media sources within Haiti to report on the early days of the quake.

Bruno helpfully identifies a “practical example” of a guide for journalists to verify online information from the Online Journalism Blog, which is echoed here.

Those at the OJB go on to say:
When the telephone first entered the newsroom, journalists were skeptical. ‘How can we be sure that the person at the other end is who they say they are?’ The question seems odd now, because we have become so used to phone technology that we barely think of it as technology at all – and there are a range of techniques we use, almost unconsciously, to verify what the person on the other end of the phone is saying, from their tone of voice to the number they are ringing from, and the information they are providing. Dealing with online sources is no different. How do you know the source is telling the truth? You’re a journalist, for god’s sake: it’s your job to find out.
Amen to that.

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