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Nieman Reports                                                                                                  summer 201...
In This Issue                                            Cover Story: Truth in the AgeIn an attempt to get the newsout fir...
Vol. 66 No. 2  summer 2012                                                                                                ...
“ hy is it just so difficult to make  W the search for truth the highest journalistic value?”                             ...
FROM THE CURATORFacts and FrictionA recent blog post on Mashable explored designer                     interesting story.”...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaA New Age for Truth‘Never has it been so easy to expose an error, checka fact...
This photo taken by a passenger after the London subway bombings in 2005 was one of the first images from the scene. It ju...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaorganization that offers verification as        and verification specialists....
the hope that news organizations andthe public will find them and takethem for real.    There is no shortage of work forfa...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaThe Associated Press bars photographers from altering images so a freelancer ...
dodging and burning, conversion into                                                         portray what they claim to po...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaInside the BBC’sVerif ication Hub‘What everyone wanted to know, on Twitter an...
This fake photo of the dead Osama bin Laden was debunked by the BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub.  Using TinEye, the team ...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediastory about a massacre in Houla,Syria, unfolded, staff membersspotted a power...
accents are Alawite, the ethnic group        up their verification skills, and you’ve 	            Responding to the tende...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaFinding the WisdomIn the Crowd‘Journalists need to get comfortable with risk,...
THE PROCESS OF VERIFICATIONIn March, Storyful’s sources in Syriatweeted that security forces were mov-                 CON...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediafrom the eternal values of storytell-            n  an                       ...
is no value in going it alone in thegolden hour. If you do, the chance                                          Vetting Ci...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social media   One morning in January, for example,        and similar news events is lik...
Doubting AminaBuilding CommunityBut there is also the community part:Vetted iReports are a giant Rolodexof stories and peo...
COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social media                                                        friends—mostly Arab w...
Challenging ‘He Said,She Said’ JournalismInstead of striving for balance, a veteran SupremeCourt reporter asks, ‘How about...
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The Truth in the Age of Social Media

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  • You pretend that everyone is disposed to act because they know the resources, how to use them, and how to gain publicity in a social media world that refuses to suffer challenges to the communist status quo. You are only talking to a small percentage of communist-afrocentric revolutionaries. Around 95% of the populace neither understands nor can manipulate social media in order to reinforce their own truth. They are victims of a machine that changes their social perception by forced feeding of one-sided propaganda paired with psychological manipulation and terror.The frightened white masses are maintained as economic serfs by a multitude of intimidatory and self concept destroying messages transmitted from every direction by a host of media and communist-afrocentric power centers who allow only one frame of reference to be recognized in their globalized police states where media terror reigns. Your dishonest bigotry allows no challenge. I accuse!
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Transcript of " The Truth in the Age of Social Media"

  1. 1. Nieman Reports summer 2012 VOL. 66 NO. 2The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University To promote and elevate the standards of journalism TRUTH IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA @NiemanReports How journalists today expose manipulations and find reliable voices in the crowd #NRtruth
  2. 2. In This Issue Cover Story: Truth in the AgeIn an attempt to get the newsout first, CNN got it wrong. Of Social MediaMinutes after the U.S. SupremeCourt handed down its decisionon the health care law in June,CNN erroneously tweeted andreported on-air that the law’s 4 A New Age for Truthindividual mandate had been Faster distribution, more platforms, and a greater role for accuracy. By Craig Silvermanstruck down. Fox News also 7 Detecting the Truth in Photosincorrectly reported on the ruling. How a news service verifies images and videos. By Santiago LyonBloomberg News, The AssociatedPress, and others got it right 10 Inside the BBC’s Verification Hubwithin the same time frame. Technology and human intuition are key. By David Turner 14 Finding the Wisdom in the Crowd Storyful helps news organizations verify social media. By Mark Little 17 Vetting Citizen Journalism CNN’s iReport draws on newsgatherers worldwide. By Lila King 19 Doubting Amina The lessons in a case of invented identity. By Jillian York 21 Challenging ‘He Said, She Said’ Journalism Does every story really have two sides? By Linda Greenhouse 25 Be Careful Who You Quote An interview with Washington ethics watchdog Melanie Sloan. By Stefanie Friedhoff 28 Taking on the Rumor Mill Sorting fact from fiction in real time after a tornado. By Katherine K. Lee 30 The Story That Rocked the Clock A newspaper adapts to a 24-hour news cycle. By Phil Brinkman
  3. 3. Vol. 66 No. 2  summer 2012 From left: Margaret Sullivan, pageFeatures 32, photo by Derek Gee/The Buffalo News; oil pipeline in Ecuador, page 36, photo by Gustavo Jononovich; Richard Gingras, page 44, photo by32 After the Shouting, Bridging the Divide Lisa Abitbol. Are the past crimes of victims fair game? By Margaret Sullivan35 Finding Strength in Numbers Learning to mine data pays off. By John Diedrich36 Photo Essay: This Land Is Their Land Exploiting Latin America’s natural riches. By Gustavo Jononovich44 Chaos Theory How an online pioneer views the future. By Richard Gingras In Every Issue 3 From the curator 50 The Fight of His Life By Ann Marie Lipinski “ Ed Kennedy’s War” edited by Julia Kennedy Cochran. Reviewed by sounding Bill Schiller 46 Cover Stories 52 Mr. Difficult A book critic in praise of the “ Mike Wallace: A Life” by Peter counter-narrative. Rader. Reviewed by Stuart Watson By Megan O’Grady 53 Nieman Notes books P lus 2013 Fellows and Bingham, 48 Secrets and Lies Taylor, Lukas, and Pulitzer prizes. “Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life” by Artur Domoslawski. 67 Nieman Journalism Lab Reviewed by Paul SalopekMegan O’Grady. Photo by Thorsten Trimpop. 68 Heard at lippmann house
  4. 4. “ hy is it just so difficult to make W the search for truth the highest journalistic value?” —Linda greenhouse, page 21 Nieman Reports The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University www.niemanreports.org Vol. 66 No. 2 SUMMER 2012 Publisher Ann Marie Lipinski Subscriptions/Business 617-496-6299 contributing Editor nreports@harvard.edu Stefanie Friedhoff assistant Editor Subscription $25 a year, $40 for two years; add $10 Jan Gardner per year for foreign airmail. Single copies $7.50. Editorial Assistant Back copies are available from the Nieman office. Jonathan Seitz Please address all subscription correspondence to Design One Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138-2098 2communiqué and change of address information to P.O. Box 4951, Manchester, NH 03108. Editorial ISSN Number 0028-9817 617-496-6308 nreditor@harvard.edu Postmaster: Send address changes to Copyright 2012 by the President and Nieman Reports Fellows of Harvard College. P.O. Box 4951 Manchester, NH 03108 Periodicals postage paid at Boston, Massachusetts and additional entries. Nieman Reports (USPS #430-650) is published in March, June, September and December by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, One Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138-2098.2 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  5. 5. FROM THE CURATORFacts and FrictionA recent blog post on Mashable explored designer interesting story.” The advice outlived the century. As a youngOliver Reichenstein’s suggestions for correcting errors on reporter, I was disappointed to learn that a legendary Twitter. It was illustrated with a quaint piece of art: a photo- journalist, while editing a newspaper story written by a friendgraph of lined writing paper and a red pencil, eraser end down, of mine, had rearranged a source’s quote, explaining, “Wouldn’tretracting the word “Error.” it be better if he said it like this?” “Twitter is celebrated for rapidly distributing breaking news, But human obstacles to truth are now aided by increasinglysometimes reaching vast audiences before that information is sophisticated co-conspirators. One of the great challenges forreported by the press,” wrote Lauren Indvik. “But sometimes reporters and editors is to harness technological tools and putthat information is inaccurate … and it can be difficult to them to work responsibly on behalf of news verification andcorrect once it’s saturated the Twittersphere. So how do you dissemination. Some tools much older than Twitter—photog-stop a bad tweet from spreading?” raphy, for one—are posing both new possibilities and problems The pairing of the post that posed a simple question and the for guardians of verisimilitude. Santiago Lyon, director ofillustration that offered a simple solution created its own quiet photography at The Associated Press, writes about the latestcommentary. The journalism of verification and the immediacy versions of Photoshop having the “ability to make some manip-enabled by social media can sometimes collide. The hidden ulation virtually undetectable.” The software to counteract thathand of an editor methodically confirming or correcting is is still too slow to satisfy a news organization like Lyon’s thatnot a value hardwired into the mobile phone outfitted with transmits some 3,000 images each day.Twitter. At the same time, Twitter is among the tools enabling Linda Greenhouse, a former New York Times reporter whofast and democratic correctives to falsehoods uttered in the now teaches at Yale Law School, recently spoke in Boston public square and part of an arsenal deployed in the emerging about fairness and the possibility that the symmetrical “he said,field of information forensics. The healthy questions arising she said” journalism can actually undermine the truth. Wefrom these tensions are the focus of this Summer issue of reprise her remarks not because they directly address the socialNieman Reports. media challenges central to this issue of Nieman Reports but The evidence of fact inflation and manipulation is not a because she asks the question central to our time: “Why is itunique byproduct of social media, as we are reminded in these just so difficult to make the search for truth the highest pages by the timeline documenting journalism’s long history journalistic value?”of errors and lies. Craig Silverman, who writes the Regret theError blog, recalls a 19th-century handbook that advised aspiring journalists on the legitimacy of manufacturing non-essential facts in support of the central objective: “to make an Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 3
  6. 6. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaA New Age for Truth‘Never has it been so easy to expose an error, checka fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear inservice of verification.’By Craig SilvermanIn a handbook for aspiring journalists published in 1894, Edwin L. and content, discovered, verified andShuman shared what he called one of the “most valuable secrets of the delivered in partnership with activeprofession at its present stage of development.” communities.” A reporter following Shuman’s advice He revealed that it was standard practice for reporters to invent a few today would likely find his fabricationsdetails, provided the made-up facts were nonessential to the overall story. swiftly exposed on social media. Bloggers “Truth in essentials, imagination in nonessentials, is considered a would tally offenses and delve deeper.legitimate rule of action in every office,” he wrote. “The paramount object People with firsthand knowledge of theis to make an interesting story.” story in question might step forward with photos and videos to contradict the It was easy for a reporter of the time notice or call him on it. invented details. Media watchdogs, pressto get away with a few, or even a bushel Shuman’s advice is objectionable, but critics, and others would call out theof, inventions. Information was scarce something about it—and the informa- reporter and his employer.and could take days or weeks to make its tion and reporting environment in which In the same vein, a politician orway to the public sphere. The telephone it was offered—seems quaint and charm- public figure who publicly asserts awas not yet widely in use, and the first ing by today’s standards. falsehood is likely to be called out bytransatlantic wireless transmission It also highlights how much things fact-checking organizations such as was years away. The early mass-market have changed when it comes to accuracy FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.Kodak Brownie camera was close to a and verification. “Not too long ago, Never before in the history of jour-decade from release. The machinery of reporters were the guardians of scarce nalism—or society—have more peoplepublishing and distribution was in the facts delivered at an appointed time and organizations been engaged in facthands of a few. to a passive audience,” writes Storyful checking and verification. Never has it If a reporter wanted to fudge a few founder Mark Little in his essay in this been so easy to expose an error, check adetails to make his story a little more issue. “Today we are the managers of fact, crowdsource and bring technologycolorful, well, chances are no one would an overabundance of information to bear in service of verification.4 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  7. 7. This photo taken by a passenger after the London subway bombings in 2005 was one of the first images from the scene. It jump-started efforts atboth the BBC and The Associated Press to solicit and verify user-generated content. Photo by Alexander Chadwick/AP. Not surprisingly, the price for inac- But that’s not to say old values and skills The Hub employs a dedicated teamcuracy has never been higher. The new aren’t still at the core of the discipline. of journalists to verify (and debunk)world of information abundance, of “The business of verifying and debunk- content from social media. Al Jazeera’sreal-time dissemination, of smartphones ing content from the public relies far more social media team practices verificationand digital cameras and social networks on journalistic hunches than snazzy tech- as a core part of its work, as does a teamhas brought the discipline of verification nology,” writes David Turner in his article of producers at CNN’s iReport platformback into fashion as the primary practice about the BBC’s User Generated Content for citizen content. The Associated Press’sand value of journalists. Hub. “While some call this new special- photo desk also dedicates significant time It has also necessitated an emerging ization in journalism ‘information foren- and resources to sourcing and verifyingarea of expertise built around verifying sics,’ one does not need to be an IT expert photos and videos from social networks.photos, videos, tweets, status updates, or have special equipment to ask and At Storyful, Little, a former televi-blog posts, and other digital ephemera. answer the fundamental questions used sion reporter, and a team of journalistsI often call this the New Verification. to judge whether a scene is staged or not.” around the world operate a news Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 5
  8. 8. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaorganization that offers verification as and verification specialists. Reporting responses to compensate for this unwel-one of its core services for customers such and checking the facts isn’t the same as come information. As a result, correc-as Reuters and The New York Times. convincing people of them. tions are sometimes ineffective and can Imagine: An outsourced verification This is one of the battles being fought even backfire.”operation, focused on vetting and curat- in the shift from information scarcity Humans resist correction and areing social media content uploaded and and tight distribution to information disinclined to change closely heldshared by people the world over. It’s a abundance and media fragmentation. beliefs. We seek out sources of informa-news organization and a business model As I’ve previously written, “the forces of tion that confirm our existing views.that would have been inconceivable 10 untruth have more money, more people, When confronted by contrary informa-years ago. and … much better expertise. They know tion, we find ways to avoid accepting it how to birth and spread a lie better than as true. We are governed by emotion,Rumors and Lies we know how to debunk one. They are not by reason. (Read more about theseThe complexity of verifying content from more creative about it, and, by the very factors in Nyhan and Reifler’s “Misin-myriad sources in various mediums and nature of what they’re doing, they aren’t formation and Fact-checking: Researchin real time is one of the great new chal-lenges for the profession. This contentcan provide critical information during Humans … are disinclined to change closely held beliefs.conflicts and natural disasters and pro-vide clarity and color to a local event. We seek out sources of information that confirm our But it also takes the form of fraudu- existing views. When confronted by contrary information,lent messages and images engineered by we find ways to avoid accepting it as true.hoaxers, manipulators and propagan-dists. Rumors and falsehoods spread justas quickly as, if not faster than, facts. In constrained by ethics or professional Findings From Social Science,” a papermany cases they prove more compelling, standards. Advantage, liars.” written for New America Foundation’smore convincing, more clickable. Researchers Brendan Nyhan of Media Policy Initiative, at “People seem to find it easier to Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of http://newamerica.net.)believe rumors that they wish were true Georgia State University have in recent These truths about human behavioror that seem to fulfill a desire to hear the years provided evidence that those work- help explain why political misinforma-worst,” writes Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News ing to spread lies large and small have a tion is so pervasive and effective and whycity editor Katherine K. Lee in her essay distinct advantage: the human brain. myths and falsehoods take hold in soci-about the News’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Unfortunately, available research in ety. The emergence of moneyed Supertornado coverage. this area paints a pessimistic picture: the PACs promise an election year lousy with Lee’s experience speaks to a funda- most salient misperceptions are typically misleading ads, nasty e-mail campaigns,mental, if depressing, truth about humans difficult to correct,” the pair wrote on the and manufactured lies.and facts: just because something is true, Columbia Journalism Review’s website Bad actors also make use of Twitter it doesn’t mean people are more likely to earlier this year. “This is because, in part, and other networks to create fakebelieve it. Facts alone are not enough to people’s evaluations of new informa- accounts that spread untruths or injectpersuade, to change minds. tion are shaped by their beliefs. When fraudulent chatter into the conversation. Liars and manipulators are often we encounter news that challenges our In dictatorships, they create fake videosmore persuasive than the press, even views, our brains may and images and upload them towith our growing cadre of checkers produce a variety of YouTube and other websites inGetting It 1835 observatory in South Africa who hadWrong Life on the Moon used a new telescope to observe New York Sun plants, animals and flying man-batsA sampling of mistakes, The paper ran a six-part hoax, on the moon.fabrications and manipulations. supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, aboutBY JONATHAN SEITZ a preeminent astronomer at an 6 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  9. 9. the hope that news organizations andthe public will find them and takethem for real. There is no shortage of work forfact checkers and the emerging verifi-cation experts within news organ- izations. But along with checkingand vetting, we must also make theproduct of this work more persuasiveand shareable. Spreading facts requires the useof narrative, powerful images andvisualization, and appeals to emotion.We must engage readers in ways thathelp them get past their biases. It alsorequires that we dedicate ourselves tospreading the skills of verification andfact checking within journalism—andto the public as a whole. A public with the ability to spot a Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, circled at right, at a celebrationhoax website, verify a tweet, detect of the 1917 Russian Revolution. After he fell out of favor,a faked photo, and evaluate sources he was eliminated from the photo before it was repub-of information is a more informed lished in 1967. Photos from David King Collection, London.public. A public more resistant tountruths and so-called rumor bombs. Detecting the(Think “death panels.”) This is apublic that can participate in factchecking, rather than merely be anaudience for it. Truth in Photos Fact checking and verification arehaving a moment right now. But whatmatters is whether this is a flash or aturning point—whether all the effortbeing put into fact checking and verifi-cation can have a measurable effect onthe persistence of misinformation andlies in our new information ecosystem. As technologies to manipulate images grow ever I’d hate for a journalist to dig up more sophisticated, media organizations are usingthis issue decades or a century in thefuture and marvel at our foolishness software to help determine authenticity.the way we did about Mr. Shumanand his great secret of 19th-century By Santiago Lyonjournalism.Craig Silverman writes the Regretthe Error blog about accuracy, errors Journalists know quite well that pictures can and do lie and thatand verification for the Poynter photographs have been manipulated for a long time. The Soviets under Stalin wereInstitute, where he is an adjunct masters of this, removing political figures from images as they fell out of favor. Leonfaculty member. He is the author of Trotsky and others would disappear from photos, erased from the historical record “Regret the Error: How Media Mis- as their political fortunes fell.takes Pollute the Press and Imperil More recently, the Fox public relations department handed out a photo of theFree Speech.” “American Idol” judges and host which it later admitted was a composite. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 7
  10. 10. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaThe Associated Press bars photographers from altering images so a freelancer was dismissed for eliminating his shadow from the photo at right. Another image, sent to us by one of (AP), we transmit about 3,000 images had occasion to dismiss other photog-our photographers from a funeral in every 24 hours to subscribers around raphers at the AP for manipulatingNorthern Ireland some years ago, had the world. That’s a little over one million imagery—and the same has happeneda pixilated man in the background who images a year. at other news agencies and mediahad been rendered unrecognizable at the In this 24-hour news cycle, timely organizations.request of the activists controlling the delivery is essential. Yet if even one of the The question remains: what can wefuneral. images we distribute is found to be false do about this phenomenon in photojour- These are the kinds of manipulations or deliberately misleading, our credibil- nalism, and particularly what can we atthat are fairly easy to spot. Naturally, we ity and reputation are on the line. the AP do about it?don’t distribute them. One of the important steps to take in In recent years, however, things have creating an ethics code this new media ecology is to formulategotten more complicated. News produc- One wake-up call came in 2004 when a policy about what can and cannot betion is changing rapidly—from fewer one of our regular photographers sold us done to imagery. AP’s ethics code is quiteresources in newsrooms to the use of an image of flooding in China. We didn’t clear:user-generated content. Technologies notice anything wrong with the dramaticto manipulate images are becoming picture. AP pictures must always tell the truth.ever more sophisticated. There are now Shortly after, we got a message from We do not alter or digitally manipu-cameras that can make the people in the a reader in Finland suggesting that late the content of a photograph inpictures look skinnier, and in the latest something was amiss with the photo. We any way. … No element should beversions of Adobe Photoshop there is contacted the photographer and, under digitally added or subtracted from anythe ability to make some manipulation questioning, he admitted that he had photograph. The faces or identities ofvirtually undetectable. raised the water level from people’s knees individuals must not be obscured by In this environment, the challenges to their waists for effect. We immediately Photoshop or any other editing tool.for major news organizations are terminated our relationship with him. Minor adjustments in Photoshop areconsiderable. At The Associated Press Over the years we have unfortunately acceptable. These include cropping,1861 1888 1912Union Wins Battle of Bull Run Obituary for the Wrong Nobel Titanic Towed Safely to HalifaxThe Associated Press, others French newspapers, The New York The Baltimore Sun, othersThe first major Civil War battle Times, others Early reports about the Titaniclooked like a Union victory so many When dynamite inventor Alfred disaster had all passengers safe andreporters left to file stories. After the Nobel’s brother Ludvig died, many the ship being towed to Nova ScotiaConfederates won, Union censors newspapers published obituaries before the extent of the casualtiesintercepted the AP’s correction. for Alfred. and the sinking were known. 8 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  11. 11. dodging and burning, conversion into portray what they claim to portray. grayscale, and normal toning and color We look for elements that can support adjustments that should be limited to authenticity: Does the weather report those minimally necessary for clear say that it was sunny at the location that and accurate reproduction … day? Do the shadows fall the right way considering the source of light? Is cloth- Even these statements need to be ing consistent with what people wear insupported by training and guidance, that region?as words alone cannot address every If we cannot communicate withpossible nuance in tonality, shading and the videographer or photographer, weother variables. will add a disclaimer that says the AP We currently have more than 350 “is unable to independently verify thestaff photographers and photo editors at authenticity, content, location or date ofthe AP, and in the past few years we have this handout photo/video.”invested substantially in a global train- We also frequently work with Hanying program designed to teach photog- Farid, a forensic computer scientist atraphers and editors the best practices for Dartmouth College who has developedusing Photoshop. We have provided clear software that can often detect photo An airplane passenger’s photo of the spaceguidance on how to accurately handle manipulation. But it takes time to check shuttle Endeavor after liftoff went viral, thenimages and what to do when in doubt. for a variety of possible alterations and was bought by The Associated Press. Photo by The process changes somewhat the technology, still in its infancy, cannot Stefanie Gordon/AP.when the material submitted comes yet detect every skillful manipulation,from a member of the public or a citizen such as the one that raised the floodwa-journalist. I first became aware of the the London bombings, when we had ters in the picture from China.potential of user-generated content after access to the person who could verify Another limitation is that full analysisthe London transit bombings in 2005. ownership of the images, give us original of a picture often requires a large origi-Explosions destroyed three subway cars data files, and sign an agreement. nal image file. The small, low-resolutionand, later, a bus, killing 52 people and Recently in the Middle East, for photographs distributed across socialwounding over 700. Photographers and example, we’ve repeatedly seen events media can make it nearly impossible tocamera crews were limited to above- where access has been difficult or detect manipulation.ground exit stations. The only visual impossible for professional journalists. All that said, I think such manipu-entry point to the heart of the story deep Local groups have been keen to share lation-detection software will becomeunderground came from cell phonephotos taken by passengers evacuatingthrough underground tunnels. Local groups [in the Middle East] have been keen to Seeing such an image on the BBCwebsite, we contacted the person who’d share images but tracking down who actually produced taken the photo. A price was negoti- a certain photo or video is extremely difficult.ated for the rights to that image andwe distributed it. The next day it waswidely used on front pages and across images but tracking down who actu- more sophisticated and useful in thethe Internet. At the time, some veteran ally produced a certain photo or video future. This technology, along witheditors, citing poor quality, dismissed the is extremely difficult. These images robust training and clear guidelinesvery notion out of hand. I argued that often are posted on activist websites or about what is acceptable, will enablesome image was better than none—and Facebook pages where media organiza- media organizations to hold the linewe started a sustained effort at the AP to tions are invited to use the material at against willful image manipulation, thusobtain strong citizen content where and no charge. But how do we know these maintaining their credibility and reputa-when it was needed. images have not been manipulated or tion as purveyors of the truth. that those purporting to have permissionMurky Origins to distribute them really do? Santiago Lyon, a 2004 Nieman Fellow,But the authenticity of a user-generated Like other news organizations, we try is a vice president and director of photog-image isn’t always as clear as it was in to verify as best we can that the images raphy at The Associated Press. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 9
  12. 12. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaInside the BBC’sVerif ication Hub‘What everyone wanted to know, on Twitter and inthe newsroom, was this: Was the video real or fake?That is the kind of question the [User-GeneratedContent] Hub is there to investigate.’By David TurnerA group of soldiers speaking Arabic with news of the clip. Jon Williams, the has moved toward semi-conventionalshovel sand into a pit while a disem- BBC’s world news editor, had also raised newsgathering with a Web 2.0 twist.bodied voice wails. After a few seconds it at the 9 o’clock news meeting. What Staffers now use search terms, see what’sit becomes apparent that the desperate everyone wanted to know, on Twitter trending on Twitter, and look at thevoice is coming from a man buried in the and in the newsroom, was this: Was the images and footage trusted contacts aretrench; the head alone is visible. video real or fake? That is the kind of discussing on their Twitter streams. The soldiers—a number dressed, question the Hub is there to investigate. The golden rule, say Hub veterans, isincongruously, in sneakers—appear to to get on the phone whoever has postedreply with gloating taunts. But they are a fateful error the material. Even the process of settingmainly concentrating on the job at hand: Started in 2005 to sift through unsolic- up the conversation can speak volumescovering the victim’s head in earth. They ited contributions previously perused about the source’s credibility: unlessdo their grisly job well; in less than a by many different teams, the Hub has sources are activists living in a dicta-minute his head is completely buried. grown to a complement of 20 staffers. torship who must remain anonymousThe video then ends abruptly—the rest Initially, the team focused heavily on to protect their lives, people who areis silence. images, footage and eyewitness accounts genuine witnesses to events are usually One rain-swept morning in April, e-mailed to the BBC, but in the past few eager to talk. Anyone who has takenTrushar Barot, assistant editor at the years people have become much more photos or video needs to be contacted inBBC’s User-Generated Content (UGC) prone to distribute material themselves any case to request their permission, asHub in London’s rather bleakly mono- through Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. the copyright holder, to use it.lithic BBC Television Centre, was study- As a result, the number of contributions The risk of posting non-authenticateding the anonymously posted footage on proffered to the BBC has declined to images is high, as the Hub was remindedYouTube. His Twitter feed was buzzing about 3,000 a day, and the Hub’s task on Sunday, May 27. As a breaking news1918 1927 1948End of World War I Edna St. Vincent Millay Profile “Dewey Defeats Truman”United Press International The New Yorker Chicago TribuneUPI president Roy Howard was Details about the poet’s parents Editors relied on polls and thevisiting a French naval office on were wrong. (Her father was a school opinion of its Washington correspon-Nov. 7 when a U.S. commander told teacher, not a stevedore, for example.) dent to incorrectly announce in earlyhim that Germany had surrendered. York, and UPI distributed it four days The errors led to the creation of the editions that Thomas Dewey hadHoward sent the false report to New before the armistice was signed. fact-checking department. won the presidential election. 10 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  13. 13. This fake photo of the dead Osama bin Laden was debunked by the BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub. Using TinEye, the team revealed that binLaden’s features had been digitally superimposed on the head of a dead Afghan fighter. Photo by Philip Hollis. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 11
  14. 14. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediastory about a massacre in Houla,Syria, unfolded, staff membersspotted a powerful photo circulatedon Twitter, showing shrouded bod-ies in rows and apparently sourcedfrom activists in Syria. “The originaldistributor of the photo on Twitterwas tracked down, we spoke to them,and they gave us information aboutits sourcing,” says Chris Hamilton, theBBC’s social media editor since 2011.“So the picture was published on theBBC News website, with a disclaimersaying it could not be independentlyverified.” Seeing the BBC News website, Gettyphotographer Marco Di Lauro almost This photo, taken in Iraq in 2003, was posted on the BBC’s homepage on May 27, 2012 to accompa-fell off his chair, he later told The Daily ny an article about a massacre in Houla, Syria. It had been distributed by Syrian activists on socialTelegraph—the image supposedly media. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images.showing the shocking aftermath of theHoula massacre was a photo he’d takenin Iraq in 2003. He posted on Facebook: “Posting this photo was a mistake, something we are all aware of. But it has “Somebody is using my images as a pro- there is no question,” says Hamilton. to be navigated anew each and everypaganda against the Syrian government “We should have made more checks, time we look at footage. There are veryto prove the massacre.” Meanwhile, as is normal practice, and the decision few things that can give you 100 percentalerted by users, the BBC took down the to publish should have been delayed, certainty.”image—90 minutes after it had been something we are very happy to do in anposted. But the damage was done: The environment where being right is more Raising doubtsDaily Telegraph and other publications important than being first.” He adds: Authenticating photos and video, inreported on the error, and the blogo- “But this was not a systematic error. We other words, can be a tricky business,sphere went wild over accusations that have a strong track record of stopping even for senior staff at the Hub. Duringthe BBC was pushing the anti-Syria numerous examples of incorrect material my visit in May, assistant editor Barotposition of the British government. making it to air or online.” recounted how on that rainy April morn-Interestingly, few readers or commenta- While frustrating, the intentional ing he went about vetting the grisly videotors accepted the disclaimer posted with “redistribution” of the Iraq photo illus- of the man being buried by people whothe photo—a key element to how many trates that “governments don’t have a appear to be Syrian soldiers: By 9:20news organizations today handle the monopoly on spinning the media,” says a.m. he had e-mailed the video to a col-challenge that there are few indepen- Hamilton. “There is a lot of potential for league, an Arabic-speaking Syrian at BBCdent reporters in countries activists to be faking Monitoring, which uses language special-such as Syria and that activ- and spinning things in ists to gather information from mediaists’ accounts and footage a way that puts their outlets across the world. At 10:12 a.m.often cannot be verified. cause forward. It is the colleague e-mailed back: The soldiers’1954 1972 1980Dr. Albert Schweitzer in the Congo Thomas Eagleton’s Past “Jimmy’s World”Life magazine, elsewhere The Washington Post The Washington PostPhotographer W. Eugene Smith Without evidence to back up the Reporter Janet Cooke fabricated anmerged two images to create one of claim, Jack Anderson reported that 8-year-old heroin addict for a story.his most memorable pictures for Life Democratic vice presidential nomi- She won a Pulitzer Prize, which wasmagazine. It also appeared on the nee Thomas Eagleton had a history later returned.cover of “Let Truth Be the Prejudice.” of drunken driving charges. 12 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  15. 15. accents are Alawite, the ethnic group up their verification skills, and you’ve Responding to the tendency forwhich rules Syria and provides many of got to work out whether it’s something social media to act as a rumor mill forits soldiers. And sneakers are commonly you need specialists for,” Hamilton outlandish theories, the Hub steers clearworn in some Syrian units. However, the says. But, he adds, “in some form you’ll of tweets that ask the public whethercolleague wondered how the voice of a always need them,” if only for the sake something is true—in contrast to someman whose face is being covered in sand of efficiency. journalists who use Twitter for crowd-could be so consistently audible—unless Hamilton can, however, foresee a time sourcing. Hamilton justifies this byhe has been fitted with a microphone? when the size of the BBC’s Hub team pointing out that the mere fact the BBC Barot had noticed this too, plus might shrink as verification is “indus- is investigating a rumor “lends credenceanother cause for suspicion: Why does trialized.” By that, he means that some to the idea that it might be true.”the video end only a few seconds after procedures are likely to be carried out However, there is no question at thethe victim’s head has submerged com- simultaneously at the click of an icon. Hub about the role journalists shouldpletely? Could it be because it has to be He also expects that technological play in verifying online information withshort enough for him to hold his breath? improvements will make the automated their trusted tools and techniques. “UGC His hunch corroborated by this checking of photos more effective. and verification are no longer a sidesecond source, Barot e-mailed colleagues Useful online tools for this are Google’s operation,” says Hamilton. “They havearound the BBC within 10 minutes to advanced picture search or TinEye, become part of the journalistic toolbox,tell them the Hub had reservations about which look for images similar to the alongside agency pictures, field report-the clip. It had failed the test. photo copied into the search function. ers, background interviews. It’s critical The dubious video illustrates a point Barot used TinEye to disprove one of for any big newsroom that wants cred-made repeatedly by Barot and his boss several gory fake images of Osama bin ibility in storytelling.”Chris Hamilton: The business of verify- Laden’s head that circulated online sooning and debunking content from the after his death last year. He tracked down David Turner is a freelance journalistpublic relies far more on journalistic the original photo of another corpse’s and author based in London. He was ahunches than snazzy technology. While face, onto which bin Laden’s features correspondent at the Financial Times forsome call this new specialization in were grafted using Adobe Photoshop. 10 years.journalism “information forensics,” onedoes not need to be an IT expert or havespecial equipment to ask and answer the Vetting Informationfundamental questions used to judgewhether a scene is staged or not. “People are surprised to find we’renot a very high-tech, CSI-type of team,” Members of the BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub offered tips for determining the veracity ofsays Barot. He and Hamilton, like the videos and photographs:Hub’s other members, have conventionaljournalism backgrounds. Hamilton, for Try to talk to the original source of the material. You will quickly form an instinctive feel-example, has done stints as reporter and ing about whether the person is telling the truth. One caveat: It may not be possible or eveneditor during his 12 years at the BBC. desirable to talk to an activist whose life will be in danger if they are identified. If material seems too good to be true, be skeptical—but keep an open mind. The famousStreamlined Future shot of a woman jumping out of a burning building during last summer’s London riots, neatlyIt’s time for the Hub’s 10 a.m. news silhouetted against a raging inferno, initially aroused suspicions. However, the Hub verified it.meeting, which has the feel of any Try to determine where the material first appeared online. It could give clues about themorning confabulation of journalists at a identity and motives of the person who posted it.media outlet, including a palpable sense Consult specialists. The BBC Monitoring Service can advise on accents. Use expert localof impatience to stop conferring and get knowledge of towns to advise whether images and videos depict the purported place.on with the day’s work. Use technology to help you. Examples include Google Earth (to confirm that the features After setting priorities for the rest of the alleged location match the photo) and TinEye. But do not do so at the expense of jour-of the day, Hamilton finds a cramped nalistic instinct. Not all the faked photos of the Osama bin Laden corpse could be disprovedoffice in which to discuss the future of by technical means, but BBC verifiers decided nonetheless that no possible explanation ofverification. how a real photo had leaked was credible. Is the Hub here to stay? “We’re seeing See what other verification experts are saying about an item on Twitter. They may havecorrespondents and producers building useful information or ideas. —D.T. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 13
  16. 16. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediaFinding the WisdomIn the Crowd‘Journalists need to get comfortable with risk,transparency and collaboration. We need to abandonthe notion that we have a monopoly on truth.’By Mark LittleWhen I was a young TV journalist, the broadest solution. We are a news n re A streetscapes similar to geo-locatedthe phrase “golden hour” meant the agency but also a technology start-up. photos on Panoramio or Google Streetearly evening light that bathed faces and Our engineers work side by side with View?landscapes in a warm forgiving glow. As our journalists. n o weather conditions correspond Da social journalist, I’ve started to use the The Storyful development team is with reports on that day?term in a different way. building products that will help our n re shadows consistent with the A I now think of the golden hour as the journalists and clients map influence reported time of day?time it takes social media to create either and connections within social media n o vehicle registration plates or traffic Dan empowering truth or an unstoppable conversations and get an early warning signs indicate the country or state?lie, when a celebrity death trends on of changes in their speed or intensity. n o accents or dialects heard in a video DTwitter or an explosive video surfaces on We are also working to scale the tech- tell us the location?YouTube. In other words, when journal- niques our editorial team has perfected in n oes it jibe with other imagery people Dism can matter most. validating videos and images. At its core, are uploading from this location? When I founded Storyful in 2010, this process is built around a checklist: n oes the video reflect events as DI imagined a news agency built for the reported on Storyful’s curated Twittersocial media age. I wanted to create the n an C we geo-locate this footage? Are lists or by local news sources?products and protocols that would equip there any landmarks that allow us other journalists to meet the challenges to verify the This form of inquiry is as oldof the golden hour. location via as journalism itself, even if the At Storyful, we think a combination Google Maps technology is not. Our approach toof automation and human skill provides or Wikimapia? authenticating sources is also drawn1982 1983 1992Moving the Great Pyramid of Giza Hitler’s Forged Diaries Truck ExplosionNational Geographic Stern (Germany), Newsweek, “Dateline NBC”A photograph of two pyramids was The Times (London) For a segment about automo-manipulated to better fit on the Stern staff reporter Gerd Heidemann bile safety, “Dateline” producerscover. procured what were purported to tampered with a GM truck to ensure be the personal diaries of Adolf World War II were asked to that it would explode during a test Hitler but no German experts on authenticate them. crash. GM sued. 14 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  17. 17. THE PROCESS OF VERIFICATIONIn March, Storyful’s sources in Syriatweeted that security forces were mov- CONSIDER YOUR SOURCES.ing through Idlib province. In search- The user, Darkoush Revo (“Darkoush News”), uploads exclusively froming for visual evidence, the Storyful this town and was active on the day in question. Affiliated Facebookteam found a 30-second YouTube clip and Twitter accounts are also Darkoush-centric.which claimed to show troops in theIdlib town of Darkoush. News editorMalachy Browne explains a number ofdetails that were checked to verify thatthe town shown was, in fact, Darkoush. CHECK THE WEATHER. WolframAlpha search engine doesn’t have details for the town of Darkoush, but it does note cloud cover in Idlib province on that date, which matches with the weather in the video. SURVEY THE LANDSCAPE. LOOK FOR LANDMARKS. The video shows hills in the distance, The key point is the mosque’s distinctive mina- which correspond to Google’s terrain map ret, which is visible in the satellite image from of the town. Google Maps because of the shadow it casts. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 15
  18. 18. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social mediafrom the eternal values of storytell- n an C we find WHOIS (domain regis- verify it and what context exists, if any.ing. The Storyful team uses the phrase tration) information for an affiliated You are still a journalist.“human algorithm” to sum up its hybrid website? Storyful has advantages in adjustingapproach. Every news event in the age n s the person listed in local directories? I to the realities of social journalism. Weof social media creates a community. Does the person’s online social circles don’t depend on ratings or traffic. OurWhen news breaks, a network gathers to indicate a proximity to the story/ mission is to help other journalists, par-talk about the story. Some are witnesses, location? ticularly those who create the real value.others are amplifiers, and in every group n oes the uploader “scrape” videos D Storyful worked with ABC News tothere are trusted filters. from news organizations and YouTube report the death of Osama bin Laden, The problem for journalists born into accounts? discovering content and mapping keyan age of elites is that these filters look n re video descriptions dated? Does the A locations and images. But we were in nonothing like our traditional sources, who title of the video have file extensions doubt that the person who really mat-are generally ranked on the basis of such as .AVI or .MP4? tered on that day was Nick Schifrin, thepower and authority. Authority has been n re we familiar with this account? A correspondent in Pakistan.replaced by authenticity as the currency Has the content and reportage been When we work with clients like Theof social journalism. The key to engaging reliable? New York Times, for example, our job iswith a community is to seek out those not to take the place of its reporters butclosest to the story. They rarely have a Reporters are taught never to expose to help turn user-generated content intotitle but are people of standing within a their own ignorance but “I don’t know” something they can safely use. This maycommunity. They are guides to the wis- is the starting point in any honest inves- involve adding context to video for Thedom within their crowd and interpreters tigation of online communities and their Lede blog, building a Twitter list for aof nuance: if you are verifying video from Syria you don’t want a foreign policy wonk, you want someone who can distinguish Every news event in the age of social media creates abetween a Damascus and a Homs accent. Our approach to rating sources and community. When news breaks, a network gathers to talkthe video they upload revolves around about the story. Some are witnesses, others are amplifiers,another checklist: and in every group there are trusted filters.n here W is this account registered and where is the uploader based, judging content. Internally we consciously use beat reporter or helping the picture desk by his or her history? the word “validation” instead of verifica- find a corroborating source.n re there other accounts—Twitter, A tion. Our role is to provide the essential Where social journalists like us Facebook, a blog, or website—affiliated context that will allow newsrooms can provide a unique benefit is in our with this uploader? How can they help to make informed judgments about embrace of collaboration. It does not us identify location, activity, reliability, content that may never be completely come naturally to journalists to risk their bias and agenda? free of risk. reputation by engaging with online com-n ow long have these accounts been in H This does not mean that social jour- munities. But there is no alternative in existence? How active are they? nalists should not deliver judgments. It the golden hour.n oes the uploader write in slang or D is not good enough to broadcast a user- I would go further: all news organiza- dialect that is identifiable in the video’s generated video and then say it can’t be tions need to radically reconsider their narration? verified. You must tell us what you did to approach to each other. There really1994 1998 1999Face of O.J. Simpson Stephen Glass Fabrications Wen Ho LeeTime The New Republic The New York Times, various outletsThe magazine darkened The associate editor was found to The scientist was incorrectly identi-the mug shot of murder have fabricated at least 27 articles fied as having leaked nuclear secretssuspect O.J. Simpson that that he’d written for The New Repub- to the Chinese. He received a settle-it put on the cover. lic. In one case, he created a website ment from the government and five for a fake company. media organizations. 16 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  19. 19. is no value in going it alone in thegolden hour. If you do, the chance Vetting Citizen Journalismyou will be consistently first is non-existent. The chance that you willoften be wrong is 100 percent. Field reporters like me grew upwith the reality of collaboration. In my days as a Washington corre-spondent, I relied on pool copy from the White House. In any war ‘It’s an emerging craft, one that combines an eye zone, my best friend was often my for a good story with a flair for connecting the fiercest rival. The very notion of the news dots and, above all, a human touch.’agency stems from collaboration ina time of disruption. The Associated By Lila KingPress was the product of an historicpartnership between New York’s five daily newspapers during theMexican-American War of the 1840s. The conversation on the desk The vetting process is rigorous and We’re at that moment again. usually goes like this: “Wow. Did you see sometimes time-consuming. It usuallyFaced with frightening disruption this iReport? Incredible.” starts with a phone call, most oftenand stunning potential, journalists “Yeah, no kidding. But how are we from the iReport desk in Atlanta, whereneed to get comfortable with risk, going to vet it?” eight full-time producers tab throughtransparency and collaboration. We The answer in broad strokes: It’s an hundreds of incoming photos and videosneed to abandon the notion that we emerging craft, one that combines an eye every day, looking for the ones we thinkhave a monopoly on truth. for a good story with a flair for connecting will make an impact. Not too long ago, reporters the dots and, above all, a human touch. About 8 percent of contributions arewere the guardians of scarce facts Vetting is the heart of iReport, CNN’s selected for vetting, a process that alsodelivered at an appointed time to a platform for citizen journalism. You alerts TV and digital producers there willpassive audience. Today we are the won’t see iReports on television or on likely be an element ready to go later inmanagers of an overabundance of CNN.com (outside the special iReport the day. Vetted iReports often turn intoinformation and content, discovered, section, that is) before they’ve been fact interview segments on air or quotes inverified and delivered in partnership checked and cleared. stories you read online.with active communities. What does that mean in practice?Technology will play its part butdon’t underestimate that humanalgorithm. We need new protocols to shape collaboration between journalists and communities. Per-haps just as important is collabora-tion among journalists, inside and outside the traditional struc-tures of news. I keep telling people we are enter-ing a golden age of journalism. Itruly believe that. But first we needto face up to the challenge of eachgolden hour.Mark Little is founder and CEO of CNN’s iReport invited viewers to submit questions for first lady Michelle Obama.the social news agency Storyful. Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 17
  20. 20. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social media One morning in January, for example, and similar news events is like the even though CNN didn’t have a reporteriReport producer Christina Zdanowicz hit Ibadan clip: it comes from someone in on the ground to witness them.the desk to find scores of new photos and the heart of the story, with a very sub- The challenge was different when avideos showing protests over increased jective view of events. No surprise, of teenage girl posted a video on iReportfuel prices in Nigeria. Often when similar course, because iReport and most social showing her being bullied. We verified itstories pile up on iReport, they’re con- media platforms are built for sharing the the old-fashioned way—by talking withnected to a news event CNN is already moments of your life. her family and school officials and track-on top of, like a natural disaster or a big At CNN we see it as our responsibility ing down police reports.political rally. The Nigerian iReports took to add context and analysis to what we And when a South Carolina womanus a bit by surprise—CNN was not yet use from iReport and other social media started posting biting—and popular—reporting this so iReport was asked to platforms. That’s why with the Nigeria webcam commentaries about the 2012sketch out the story. protest, the iReport team continued Republican presidential primary race, to make calls all morning to iReport the vetting process wasn’t so much aboutVerifying Reports contributors who’d seen similar protests getting inside her head and verifyingOne important contribution was a in Lagos and Abuja and Benin City. whether she really thinks the things shevideo showing a protest in the streets of Then we worked with a reporter said. It was more about figuring out whoIbadan, Nigeria, earlier that morning. at CNN International who connected she is and how she got to the point ofTo investigate the authenticity of the clip, the details we’d researched with com- posting videos of her commentary andZdanowicz reached out to the Ibadan ments from the local police, the office of saying that plainly and clearly to ouriReporter, a 24-year-old pharmacist President Goodluck Jonathan, and the audience.named Boma Tai. He described when economic and historic context of fuel At iReport we use a variety of tools:and where and why the protest was hap- price subsidies in Nigeria. Together, the CNN-ers in the field, subject-matterpening and who was participating. citizen journalism, our research, and the experts, affiliate networks, and local media. We cross-check what we learn from citizen journalists with other social At iReport we use a variety of tools: CNN-ers in the media reports. We also use technology, which can’t field, subject-matter experts, affiliate networks, and prove if a story is reliable but offers help- local media. We cross-check what we learn from citizen ful clues. For example, we often check journalists with other social media reports. photo metadata to find timestamps and sometimes location data about the source photo or ask a photographer to All good and useful detail, but there reporter’s contributions formed a com- share the previous or next 10 imageswas a catch: He wasn’t just observing, he prehensive story that provided images from her camera. We also occasionallywas participating, and he shared foot- and video of the protests as well as news send an image through a service likeage of the event because he wanted “the analysis explaining the context and why TinEye to help determine whether itworld to know in raw and unedited terms this was happening. shows signs of alteration.what is going on in Nigeria … the poor In a number of ways, the Nigerian That’s the journalism part—figuringare suffering!” So we decided to see what protest story is a simple example. After out what you need to add to a video orother context we could find to fill out talking to dozens of people about the photo that you find on the Internet tothe story. same events, it wasn’t a huge leap to say make sense of it and to help someone Most of the video we see of protests that we believed they had happened, else understand why it matters.2000 2003 He also plagiarized from wirePresidential Election Results Jayson Blair services and other newspapers. AfterVarious outlets The New York Times Blair’s deceptions were uncovered,Many newspapers and media outlets In at least 36 national stories for the two top editors stepped down, cor-declared a winner before the vote Times, Blair committed numerous rection procedures were tightened,count in Florida was finalized. The fabrications, lied about where he and a public editor was appointed toelection was eventually decided in reported from and what he wit- evaluate, criticize and comment oncourt. nessed, and made up quotes. the paper’s integrity. 18 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  21. 21. Doubting AminaBuilding CommunityBut there is also the community part:Vetted iReports are a giant Rolodexof stories and people to follow up on.This March when the world markedthe first anniversary of the earth-quake and tsunami in Japan, CNN The biggest hoax of 2011 fooled activists andasked the iReporters who had sharedfootage of that event for updates on journalists alike. One writer and free speechhow they were faring. The result is as advocate explains why so many wanted to tender a portrait as you’ll read in ananniversary piece. believe in the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus.’ More than offering immediatefirsthand glimpses of breaking news, By Jillian Yorkthe community we are building maybe the real secret behind iReport’ssuccess. Our platform provides an It all began with an argument.open door to participating in the On someone else’s Facebook wall isnews to almost anyone who cares where I first encountered Amina. Sheto enter, and a growing number of was feisty, unapologetic and, though Ipeople from all over the world are can’t remember what we argued about,doing just that; as of May 2012, there I remember her apology afterward,were more than one million regis- written privately to me in a Facebooktered iReporters. message. Soon afterward, we became Outside of vetting, the iReport Facebook “friends,” though admittedlyteam in Atlanta spends the majority we rarely exchanged messages. It of its time dreaming up ways to invite wasn’t until months later when, afterthat community—both existing and reading a piece in The Guardian about future members—to take part in what a Damascene “gay girl” whose braveCNN is doing. For example, we’ve blogging had earned her accolades, I come up with new models, such as a put two and two together and realizedrecent community-driven interview that Amina was that girl.with first lady Michelle Obama or Soon after, however, things tooka mash-up video of footage shot by a turn for the worse: Amina, it was The supposed arrest of the “Gay Girl in people in various cities and countries reported on her own blog on June 6, Damascus” blogger provoked a campaign.on a single day in March. 2011, had been kidnapped by Syrian We discovered early on that it secret police forces. In a matter of justwasn’t enough to wait for news to 24 hours, the international media was anonymity when reporting from placesbreak and hope people might think in a frenzy over Amina’s disappearance. like Syria. So much of the debate hasto contribute (and set off the vetting But as a few skeptics began to search focused on citizen journalism, the practi-process). iReport today is a highly for someone, anyone who knew Amina tioners of which are often deemed pronecollaborative effort among profes- personally, her elaborate story began to errors, that we so easily forget thatsional journalists, eyewitnesses and to quickly unravel and by June 12, six professional journalists make mistakes,passionate participants to tell the full days after her supposed kidnapping, the too. Though it was indeed The Guardianbreadth of news stories as they unfold truth became known: Amina was no gay that published the story that allowed usand to reinvent the process together girl in Damascus, but instead a white, to believe that Amina was real, I don’tas we go. American man in Scotland named Tom place too much blame on the journalist— MacMaster. the pseudonymous Katherine Marsh—Lila King is participation director Throughout the past year, and even for her error. Though Marsh’s editorfor CNN Digital, where her work is before Amina’s story, there has been should have doubted the veracity of thefocused on inviting CNN’s global an abundance of discussion on social content upon learning that Marsh hadaudiences to participate in the news. media verification, as well as the need for conducted her interview over e-mail Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 19
  22. 22. COVER STORY: Truth in the age of social media friends—mostly Arab women—to ask if imprisoned. We see the videos and the any of them knew her in real life. At first, images and hear the desperate pleas on at least two implied “yes,” a testament to social media. And therefore, when doubt how much we all wanted to believe that seeps in, we find it harder and harder no one could be so callous. to believe the next story. One need only And yet, callous is the first word that look to the conversations taking place comes to mind when I think of what every day on Twitter—and even in the Tom MacMaster did. In an interview major media of some foreign coun- with The Guardian in June 2011, Mac- tries—to see how pervasive the doubting Master attempted an apology, stating: of Syrian narratives has become. And yet, the journalistic errors I regret that quite a number of people continue as well. Following the May 25 are seeing my hoax as distracting from massacre in Houla in which 108 people, real news, real stories about Syria, mostly women and children, were and real concerns of real, actual on killed, the BBC used a photograph of the ground bloggers where people shrouded bodies that had actually been will doubt their veracity and the fact taken in Iraq in May 2003. While the that I think it’s only a matter of time photograph had gone viral on social before someone in the Syrian regime media, the BBC erroneously posting itA sampling of tweets from an effort by NPR’s says ‘See, all our opposition is fake, led to more accusations of journalisticAndy Carvin to confirm Amina’s existence. it’s not real.’ bias and more doubt.and instant messenger, I understand alltoo well why Marsh believed “Amina,”because I did, too. During the six days of the search for Amina, I was During the six days of the search for directly in touch with those doing the digging and IAmina, I was directly in touch with those admit: I at first resisted—and resented—their search.doing the digging and I admit: I at firstresisted—and resented—their search. Iwas at a conference in New York at the Setting aside for a moment how On a normal day, a journalist’stime, as was NPR’s Andy Carvin—among shallow an apology it was, I am instead mistake might cost him some respect,the first to express doubt about Amina— struck by MacMaster’s foresight in maybe even his job. But when reportingand I recall arguing with him about recognizing the damage his hoax would on conflict—especially a conflict likewhether it was the right thing to do cause. One year later, and the regime has Syria, in which journalists are marginal-when a life could be at stake. I was upset, maintained power by doing just that: ized from the very beginning—a lackangry and wanting to believe. Portraying the opposition as the real of scrutiny may, in fact, inadvertently The details about Damascus put problem, as “terrorists.” further agendas of suppression.forth by MacMaster were plausible, at And that is precisely why we want toleast enough so that my Syrian friends believe each story. We know the horrors Jillian York is the director of inter-failed to spot any errors. In fact, as my that the Syrian regime is capable of, national freedom of expression at thedoubt crept in about Amina, I began and we know that thousands of Syrians Electronic Frontier Foundation and thewriting to our many mutual Facebook have been killed while others have been cofounder of Talk Morocco.2003 suffered only broken bones and 2003“She Was Fighting to the Death” bruises. Military and government WMD in IraqThe Washington Post officials inflated her story to spur The New York Times, othersA front-page story about the capture support for the Iraq War. Articles by Judith Miller publishedby Iraqi forces of Army Pfc. Jessica in the run-up to the invasion of IraqLynch said she fired every bullet she cited reports that the country pos-had and suffered numerous wounds. sessed weapons of mass destruction.In reality, she never fired a shot and That was proven not to be the case. 20 Nieman Reports | Summer 2012
  23. 23. Challenging ‘He Said,She Said’ JournalismInstead of striving for balance, a veteran SupremeCourt reporter asks, ‘How about truth for a goal?’By Linda GreenhouseA 2009 story in The New York Times mainstream journalism to the goals of Loaded Wordsabout a dispute involving Fox News fairness and objectivity. It’s more challenging to question thedescribed the cable network as “a This is nothing new. Adolph Ochs, “he said, she said” norm in other con-channel with a reputation for having a the founding publisher of the modern texts. For instance, some people—manyconservative point of view in much of its New York Times, whose byword was people—consider waterboarding to beprogramming.” “without fear or favor,” believed that a torture, and they refer to it that way. Really? responsible newspaper should “report But others cling to the notion that it is That phrase “with a reputation” put all sides of a controversial issue, and let not torture. What is a news organizationthe reporter, and the newspaper, at arm’s the reader decide the truth,” according to do?length from the fact that the Fox News to a reminiscence written a couple of NPR has chosen to use “harshChannel does have a conservative point years ago for internal distribution to the interrogation tactics” or “enhancedof view, and proudly so. Times staff. interrogation techniques” instead of What was the purpose of that distanc- In this article, I will raise some “torture” when reporting stories abouting phrase? questions about the assumption behind waterboarding and other coercive A 2011 New York Times article, that credo, as well as the utility, in this practices used to interrogate terrorismtypical of many others, referred to Jared media-saturated and cynical age, of the suspects. When listeners pushed back,Loughner as “the man accused of open- siren call of “fairness and objectivity.” Alicia C. Shepard, NPR ombudsmaning fire outside a Tucson supermarket.” Inside the profession of journalism, at the time, responded that she agreedWhether the Tucson shooter is guilty there has been a lively debate going on with the network. “The problem is thatof murder is a legal question, but there for years over whether the “he said, she the word torture is loaded with politicalis no question at all about his identity said” format, designed to avoid taking and social implications,” she wrote onas the man who shot Congresswoman sides on contentious issues, impedes her blog, adding: “NPR’s job is to giveGabrielle Giffords and killed six people. rather than enhances the goal of inform- listeners all perspectives, and present theWe don’t have to say “accused of ”—he ing the reader. news as detailed as possible and put it indid the deed in front of dozens of This debate comes up most often dur- context.” Because using the word torturewitnesses. ing political campaigns, and many press would amount to taking sides, reporters I’m not picking on the Times—the critics and commentators have pointed should instead “describe the techniquesnewspaper I read most carefully as well out how superficial and subject to and skip the characterization” entirely,as the place I worked for 40 years. And manipulation that format can be in the she said.although it is attacked, most often from context of a campaign. For that reason, Again, that may be an easy example,the right but not infrequently from the many news organizations now publish because it’s binary—use the wordleft, for various kinds of bias, it actu- or post “fact-check” boxes that vet the torture, or avoid it. How about a com-ally, in both its performance and its accuracy of political ads or of candidates’ plex event or situation that requires theideals, epitomizes the commitment of assertions during debates. reporter to make a series of judgments in Nieman Reports | Summer 2012 21

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