How ARD, BBC and CNN verify social media content
Be it the death of Osama bin Laden, the emergency landing of a plane on the Hudson River or armed conflict in Syria, photos and videos made by eye witnesses usually reach the public as initial evidence through breaking news. Today, media organizations are virtually flooded with digital content from all over the world which makes it even more important to pay attention to the sources of information. That is why large media organizations have set up special research teams to verify the content from social networks. Although most of them follow the same rules, it is worthwhile to compare the separate approaches. Konrad Weber shows how renowned international media outlets such as ARD, BBC, CNN and others check the content coming from social media.
A UGC Hub has existed at the BBC since 2005. Its primary task is to verify pictures, news and videos that come from the users and viewers. Initially, the team mostly focused on the information mailed to the BBC on a daily basis. But today people are more likely to distribute the information themselves through different social networks. As a result, the number of contributions has dropped to about 3,000 a day, and the Hub, which has in the meantime grown to 20 staffers, is now focused on self-researched materials in the social web.
The rule of thumb for the Hub staffers is: always get on the phone or contact the author via Skype. By doing this, the journalists cover two issues. First, they can query the source on the circumstances under which the photo or video was taken. Second, they request the source’s permission, as the copyright holder, to use the material in their coverage. The journalists clarify the following issues:
- Where was the footage uploaded originally?
- When was the footage uploaded?
- Are there any special reasons for which the footage was uploaded?
However, the footage might be posted anonymously for safety reasons, which makes it difficult to contact the author. In that case, the Hub staffers have to go through other verification steps:
- Contents: Does the location actually seen in the footage match the indicated location? Are languages or dialects in the footage understandable? To check these issues, the Hub staffers turn to local specialists such as field reporters, immigrants or guides.
- Technical issues: Possible changes in the footage and its local nature are traced.
Thus, in May 2011 the Hub disproved a fake image of Osama bin Laden’s head that circulated online. It turned out to be a photo of another corpse’s face, onto which bin Laden’s features were grafted using Adobe Photoshop. The journalists used TinEye to search for images similar to the photo. The same search can also be performed with Google Picture Search.
The news agency Storyful employs 23 staffers and is specialized on separating “actionable news from the noise of the real-time web”. The agency has developed a checklist to verify footage from the web:
- Can the footage be geo-located? Are there any landmarks that help to verify the location via Google Maps or Wikimapia?
- Are streetscapes similar to geo-located photos on Panoramio or Google Street View?
- Do weather conditions correspond with reports on that day?
- Are shadows consistent with the reported time of day?
- Do vehicle registration plates or traffic signs indicate the country or state?
- Do accents or dialects heard in a video tell us the location?
- Does the information correspond to the other imagery and reports people are uploading from this location (e.g. via Twitter Advanced Search?
The Storyful staffers have also created an additional checklist to verify the sources:
- Where is this account registered and where is the uploader based, judging by his or her history?
- Are there other accounts – Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or website – affiliated with this uploader? How can they help us identify location, activity, reliability, bias and agenda?
- How long have these accounts been in existence? How active are they?
- Does the uploader write in slang or dialect that is identifiable in the video’s narration?
- Can we find WHOIS (domain registration) information for an affiliated website?
- Is the person listed in local directories? Does the person’s online social circles indicate a proximity to the story/location?
- Does the uploader “scrape” videos from news organizations and YouTube accounts?
- Are video descriptions dated? Does the title of the video have file extensions such as .AVI or .MP4?
- Are we familiar with this account? Has the content and reporting been reliable?
When CNN launched its citizen journalism platform iReport in 2006, the company probably didn’t expect over a million of iReporters who would register on the platform over the next six years and 2.4 million unique users each month.
All iReporters contributing to the platform with their tips, photos and videos are unpaid. Still, the quality of the submitted content is often high and CNN has made use of it in its coverage. iReport’s team of eight full-time producers receives more than 500 pieces of content on average each day. If a submission could be used in whole or in part by a CNN property other than iReport, the iReport team verifies it thoroughly.
That’s where a two-step verification process comes into play:
- Verification begins with an iReport producer reaching out to the uploader in order to ask questions by phone, email, Skype, etc. The author of the footage is asked about their actual location, the camera used to take the footage, what they think about the event and if they have been paid for reporting. At this stage, journalists also hope to find out additional information on the event, which can be included in the coverage.
- As a second step, the iReport staffers verify the footage itself. They resort to CNN-ers in the field, subject-matter experts, affiliate networks, local media and local police reports to verify all the aspects of the story. The journalists also cross-check what they have learned from citizen journalists with other social media reports and use technology.
Let us have a look at how English news agencies verify their sources in the social web. Whereas Associated Press (AP) uses a clear verification model to check the authenticity of pictures, Reuters provides its reporters with just a few general tips on dealing with information from Twitter.
The Reuters Handbook of Journalism explains that reporters should be aware of the dangers of the social web. There are, however, no concrete guidelines on the verification process.
In contrast to Anglo-Saxon media, German media organizations are just beginning to implement verification processes in their work. For example, the German organization of regional public-service broadcasters ARD developed a verification checklist in April 2011 which is used by a journalist in the company’s Content Center. Basically there are four steps in the verification process:
- Examining metadata (exif data, time of shooting, Google Maps, weather)
- Checking the source’s credibility by contacting the source. At this step, journalists also ask for permission to publish the footage.
- Check through experts (ARD reporters at the location, language specialists, Skype contacts)
- Technical check (image editing, sound)
Reporters at ZDF approach the verification process in a more flexible way. For example, some staffers use Facebook groups to crowd source information without bringing the sources into danger. Emergence teams may be set up when reporting on crises.
Author: Konrad Weber
Original publication: Wie ARD, BBC und CNN Inhalte aus dem Social Web verifizieren
Translation: Natalia Karbasova