Social media has opened up a new world of sources and information that has changed how journalists find and distribute stories, but with that comes an increased danger of misinformation.
The role of the journalist in finding and providing the truth around events therefore becomes vital.
"When it comes to verification, this is one of the ways that journalists and organisations distinguish themselves," said Craig Silverman, founder of Regret the Error and one of the authors of the Verification Handbook.
"Today there's an abundance of information that could be considered news, but we can distinguish ourselves by applying those principles of verification."
Thankfully, Silverman told delegates to the World Editors Forum in Turin yesterday, there has been a rise in the number of tools that help in the verification process.
"When it comes to verification, you need to think about both the content and the source," he said. "But look at them as two independent processes."
When you see information online, the person who shares it is rarely the person who took it, said Silverman, and there are a variety of free tools available to verify the date, location and "element of the integrity of the information" – the verifiable core of content.
In terms of location, Google Maps is an easily accessible service to verify location, said Silverman.
Comparing the background terrain or landmarks of where a source says an image was taken with comparable images and data on Google Maps is a good place to start.
If information from Google Maps still does not clarify the location then weather information is another good option, said Silverman.
Sites like Wolfram Alpha are a good point of call in terms of finding the weather conditions in certain localities. When attempts to verify that location with Google Maps are inconclusive, weather conditions can play a strong secondary role.
"An Exif Reader is great for image verification," said Silverman, "because you can look at the meta data attached to that image."
Rather than looking at the image itself, an Exif Reader allows the user to look at the data attached to the image, said Silverman, namely the date, camera type and often the location the photo was taken in, if GPS tagging has been activated.
Reverse image search
Finally, Silverman suggested using Google's image search function, in which the user can upload an image or add a URL for an image that needs verifying.
Google will then, hopefully, find the earliest version of that image that was uploaded to the internet, and similar – potentially doctored – images that will aid in the verification process.
"If you can put the verification process in place and use some of the free tools and spread the knowledge in the newsroom then not only do you not fall for the hoax." he said, "but you can write the story debunking it."
In terms of questioning the source of the information, rather than the content, Julie Posetti, a lecturer at the University of Wollongong, had six pieces of advice to add.
Build a trust network
"It's not just about providing credible information," said Posetti, "but also about responsiveness and concern and generosity with your time and information.
"That is an investment but not one that newsrooms have been willing to indulge in until recently."
A "trust network" on social media aids in verification both by being a sounding-board for potentially contentious information, but also in justifying a journalist's position as an authoritative source of information.
If the source of information is unknown, journalists should investigate their credentials for providing it wherever possible.
"Who is this person, where are they from – both in terms of geolocation and their web history," said Posetti, "what do they talk about, who do they talk to on Twitter [or other social networks]."
If someone is providing a photo they claim is from Syria but recently tweeted about having a great coffee in Paris, that raises serious questions as to whether they took the photo, or know it is true, for example.
"This is about applying the basic principles of inquiry and a forensic approach to information assessment," said Posetti.
How do I know this?
Before retweeting or publishing information from elsewhere, it is important to ask yourself how you actually know something to be true, said Posetti.
"Essentially, before I share something, ask how do I know this, and how do they know this?" she said. "So what is their credibility?"
Breaking down and assessing the basis for which you know something to be true allows you to be more critical in using information from social media sources.
Attributing sources when information has been received from outside the organisation is not only important on an ethical basis, but also in terms of covering your own back and being part of the community, said Posetti.
"Not just for the ethical reasons but because you are aiding the collective verification process by embedding verification in the tweet," she said.
Taking a breath before publishing is a habit Posetti recommends from her time in broadcasting with ABC.
"In broadcasting, in contexts where defamation or contempt are concerned, there's a seven second delay," she said. "And that gives you a seven second window to respond if someone says something inappropriate."
There is an "inherent risk" in broadcasting and live-reporting situations, she said, and using social media is essentially the same thing.
"With the adrenaline and the speed, before social media came along there was no competition for live radio or TV [in breaking news] and the same applies," she said.
"Ask yourself those essential questions and ask if there is risk. Ask whether it fits in [your] own standards before hitting send."
"Correct as quickly as you can," said Posetti. "If you do err be mindful that errors can be corrected at speed too", although corrections are "less likely to make an impact" than an inaccuracy.
"You have a responsibility both editorially and in terms of public safety to make corrections, especially if you're in live reporting," she said. "You can't just throw a grenade and walk away."
Corrections need to be transparent and the error needs to be acknowledged "in a meaningful way", she said, as "sometimes misinformation can have an effect on individuals or communities so setting the record straight can be vital".
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