As part of a “social media summit” this week, the BBC posted an overview of how its user-generated content desk handles reports from the field — verifying and curating them in much the same way that Andy Carvin of NPR has been doing for the past few months during the upheaval in the Middle East. As I’ve written before, there is a growing need for this kind of curation, but there is also the need to start looking at news as a process and not as a pristine, finished product.
While many media outlets have web editors who track reports on Twitter and other social media, the BBC is unique (as far as I know) in having a special desk that sits in the middle of the newsroom and pulls in reports from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and anywhere else it can find information. The desk staffers then try to verify these reports, and some of the ways they do that are fascinating. In a sense, they are trying to do CSI-style forensic analysis in real time, by checking things such as:
- looking at weather and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the reported date and time of a photo or video.
- checking the accents and language in a video or other report to make sure that they are consistent with the location, using BBC staff who speak those languages.
- verifying locations against maps of a region, and cross-checking images against known images from that location.
Andy Carvin has also talked about how he sees verification as being a big part of his job in curating Twitter feeds from people in the trouble spots he is reporting on — feeds that are made up of people he has hand-picked because they are reliable in some way. Whenever a video is posted that purports to be of an attack, or reports of government leaders or high-profile individuals killed, Carvin spends a lot of time trying to get confirmation from others in the region or other reliable sources.
Storyful and curation
Mark Little, the founder of a curation tool called Storyful — which allows journalists and others to collect videos, photos and other content easily about a specific topic (in much the same way that a similar tool called Storify does) — says that his staff of curators take much the same approach that the BBC’s user-generated content desk does, in trying to confirm reports and videos that claim to be from a particular spot. They also:
- review an uploader’s history and location to see whether he or she has shared useful and credible content in the past, or if they are a “scraper,” who passes off other people’s content as their own.
- use Google Street View images to help verify the locations in a video or photo.
- monitor social-media traffic to see who is sharing the content and what questions are being asked about it.
But what’s interesting about the Storyful founder’s post about this process is that he admits that sometimes he has posted things when he wasn’t sure whether they were correct — including a photo that he posted during the floods in Queensland, Australia that showed a crocodile in a parking lot. As he says in his post: “It was too good to be true, so we decided to drop the image into the social media conversation around the floods. Suddenly, we were part of a furious debate about crocodiles in Australia,” which ultimately proved that the photo was a fake. Carvin says that he also uses his network to check the veracity of reports, because he knows they will know more than he does.
There are no doubt many mainstream journalists and media observers — including some at the BBC, who were critical of Carvin’s approach to Twitter reporting during the social-media summit — who would see this kind of approach as reprehensible, and argue that reports of any kind shouldn’t be posted on Twitter or anywhere else without verifying them. But others (including me) would argue that what Little did was a sensible way of approaching the new real-time nature of news reporting: in other words, post a report and say that it is unverified, and see if anyone can help you verify it.
Little calls this the “human algorithm,” and I think it’s a necessary step in the future of journalism and media. If anyone can report, and anyone can function as a journalist, then we need everyone to be able to help confirm and verify reports like the ones Andy and the BBC are getting. That’s not something a single person or even a group of editors at a specific outlet can do in real-time. Media analyst and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has talked about the need to look at the news as a process instead of a finished product that is turned out at a specific time and in a specific format, and that is something more media outlets need to come to grips with.
In a sense, this is no different from the approach that news wires have taken in the past: a report comes in, it is fact-checked as much as possible and then it goes on the wire, and when it needs to be corrected, an update goes out. Twitter is becoming the real-time news wire for the world, and we need people who can make use of it as such — more people like Andy Carvin, as entrepreneur Bernard Lunn argues in a recent blog post. And we need new attitudes about how we look at journalism as well, now that everyone is doing it.