Posts Tagged ‘verification’

Letting our principles lead the way in the time of social media

The alerts pop up in the right-hand corner of my screen in quick succession, each one more heartbreaking than the last.

“Possible attack in Barcelona.”

“In La Rambla and I think a car or van has driven through the pedestrian part.”

I begin tracking the accumulating tweets, reaching out in Spanish and English to scared and confused tourists and locals alike.

“Are you safe? Can you tell me what you saw?” I ask them.

Graphic videos come in without warning, showing motionless, bloodied bodies strewn across the famous boulevard. It’s difficult to imagine something so awful happening in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but soon, it becomes clear: this is terrorism.

As a member of my network’s social newsgathering team, safely ensconced in a New York City newsroom, I can only glean the horror from my computer screen, in shaky cell phone videos, or over the phone with witnesses struggling to grasp what has just taken place. I, on the other hand, have seen this many times before.

As smartphones and apps have become so ingrained in our lives, news now breaks almost exclusively on social media. It is a blunt, yet indispensable tool in a network’s newsgathering efforts.

NBC’s Becky Bratu says we must not forget values of humanity when reporting on events through social media.

I am part of a 24/7 team that monitors the fire hose that is global social media for any inkling of an unfolding event – and there have been lots of late. These platforms have given us an ability to cover stories in areas not immediately accessible to a US based news operation.

We no longer need to fire up a satellite truck and camera crew to get to the news. We can watch it almost as it happens. On Facebook or Twitter, the distance between a reporter and her source disappears, but our journalistic ethics, standards, and professionalism shouldn’t.

Our team is trained to move fast, finding witnesses and verifying content from the scene in an event’s immediate aftermath, knowing that we are competing against reporters in newsrooms all across the world.

With shrinking attention spans (and news cycles), I wonder sometimes if these faraway fellow journalists also stop and think about our guiding principles: seeking the truth, being accountable and, perhaps most importantly, minimizing harm.

In the wake of a mass shooting in rural Texas this month, Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy wrote that the media that descended upon the small community of Sutherland Springs in such large numbers and with so many satellite trucks in tow, owed the grieving town an apology.

“You’re more than a hashtag,” she said.

“As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity. As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.”

We should do better. As social platforms have given us access to an infinite amount of sources and stories, regardless of our organizational resources, we must not forget our humanity. We should bring compassion for those struck by tragedy or involved in traumatic events, even as we work from behind a Twitter avatar.

In an effort to establish a set of common principles and in accordance with our company’s practices, a colleague and I developed a social newsgathering ‘boot camp’ with an emphasis on the standards that should be met in our reporting.

Teaching it to dozens of people throughout the company, we highlighted the importance of making sure people are safe before we ask them to tweet at us, as well as the need to protect a source’s personal information. I am hopeful that this small initiative, as well as broader ones led by nonprofit groups such as First Draft, will better equip us to, in their words, “address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age.”

As the attack in Barcelona unfolded, I managed to connect on the phone with a life-long resident who had witnessed the carnage up close. I hoped to honor his generosity (and courage) in sharing his first-hand account with our audience, as our mission remains, first and foremost, to inform the public.

Social media gives us a new toolkit in serving this mission, but our principles should lead the way.

Becky Bratu is a reporter based in New York. She has been working with NBC News for more than six years in various roles, most recently as a reporter on the social newsgathering team. She has also written for on topics ranging from Catholicism to wine investment. She can conduct interviews in five languages, one of them her native Romanian. Bratu holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In her spare time,
she has been learning to code. You can interact with her on Twitter here

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

The importance of verifying in breaking news

When reporting on stories on platforms like Twitter, accuracy is important. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons under CC license)

When reporting on stories on platforms like Twitter, accuracy is important. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons under CC license)

Twitter, in its nearly 10 year existence, has become ubiquitous with live events. It allows users to keep up with friends, family, and especially the media when it comes to life here and now. It has also become quintessential when it comes to breaking news, including covering the shootings Wednesday at a social services center in San Bernardino, a suburb of Los Angeles.

As the story broke, Twitter became a way for dissemination of information by news organizations, as well as an attempt to aid reporting for other platforms. As journalists looked for witnesses to the attacks, one Twitter user, who gave the name Marie Christmas on the platform. It later emerged that the user had fabricated information and had not witnessed the attacks, as my SPJ colleague, Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman noted on the Code Words blog earlier today.

Those who reported her remarks and had broadcast interviews with this individual had fallen for the error, as Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University noted in his blog, and there are still some questions, especially how the user got onto CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and how she was vetted. Buttry inquired to CNN about the subject, and a message left with a CNN spokesperson in Los Angeles was not immediately returned.

The story served as a reminder of the importance of verification and accuracy. Andie Adams, a digital producer at NBC San Diego (who also oversees communications for SPJ’s Generation J community), said they worked with their colleagues at KNBC in Los Angeles on the social media coverage of the story. Yet, when looking at a breaking news story, that solid source is important.

“We try to hold back, especially on numbers, so we’d like to get a solid source for a most accurate count before reporting,” Adams said in a telephone interview. “We don’t want to cause undue alarm.”

Adams says that accuracy is the big thing in reporting, and that journalists should be careful about false information.

“False information gets retweeted over and over again and you need to be careful where that information is coming from,” Adams said. “Check your sources. Make sure the information you get is true.”

As the story unfolded, Twitter and other social media platforms were filled with information on the incident, and the social networks are developing new platforms and tools when it comes to reporting live events. Adams says while the new tools are helpful, the ethics are still crucial, even as you report for platforms beyond social media.

“Accuracy is paramount no matter what platform you’re using,” Adams said. “You can do so many things. If you focus on the tech, you could lose the ethics of the journalism part. You forget to do your main job. You need to keep those ethics in place. Value is important.”

Ultimately, the essence of the 5 main journalism questions, who, what, when, where, why and how, still are essential, and Adams says you need to ask what the most important information should be in breaking stories, and what the consequences are for sharing that.

“You can’t speculate,” Adams said. “You need to watch for it in the digital age.”

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and blogger for SPJ’s blog network, with a focus on social media trends in journalism as well as British media. Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication based in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

Verify, verify, verify, especially on social media

The Journalism School at New York's Columbia University issued a report April 5 regarding inaccuracies in a Rolling Stone story. (Photo - mathewingram/Flickr under CC)

The Journalism School at New York’s Columbia University issued a report April 5 regarding inaccuracies in a Rolling Stone story. (Photo – mathewingram/Flickr under CC)

One of the biggest talking points in the journalism world at this writing is the just released report from the Columbia Journalism School on the story in Rolling Stone magazine regarding rape at the University of Virginia.

The report, which notes failures that could have been avoided, also has implications for those working in social media and digital journalism.

Indeed, while social media has changed not only how news is consumed, but also how it can be reported, the big point still remains, to verify, verify, verify.

My SPJ colleague, Andrew Seaman, the chairman of the Ethics Committee, reached by email, says verification is crucial irrespective of platform.

“It’s incredibly important to recognize that verification and attribution is as important as it is for journalists reporting for print and broadcast media,” Seaman said. “The Society’s Code of Ethics is written with the understanding that all journalism – no matter where it occurs – is journalism. In all cases, speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Currently, journalists are fortunate to have social media and other easily available sources to corroborate or verify stories. The trick is for journalists to use these avenues as tool – not excuses.”

Indeed, as Carole McNall, an SPJ Digital member and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University in New York state, in a note on the social networking site Twitter, indicates, Rolling Stone should do more to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

“[Rolling Stone]’s apparent belief that they need to change nothing guarantees it’ll happen again,” McNall said.

For journalists, social media has allowed a new experience in how we consume and report the news, and this report should be a reminder of the basic principles of getting the facts and putting an ethical story together, whether you’re with a magazine, a broadcaster, an online publication or at a newspaper. When reporting on social media, ensure everything is accurate. Take time to verify sources and material. If you’re quoting a report from social, especially Twitter, verify it before running with it.

Social media can be essential, but used together with other reporting tools can help make a story great. Running with the facts just because they are posted on there doesn’t mean it is automatically true, so take time to verify everything before your deadline. Not only will verification of facts make you be a better journalist for it, it will help your organization grow in trust, especially in the digital world.

Remember, it is better to be right and be correct, than being first than being incorrect, and a great story has verified fact. Verify, verify, verify.

For the record, the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement independent of this blog post, which you can read here, and you can read wider insight from Seaman on the report, posted on the SPJ Ethics blog here.

If you’re a digital journalist, I’d love to know what you think of this report and the affect on social media and other digital tools in journalism. Feel free to drop me an email or send me a tweet. I look forward to reading your feedback.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, blogs on social media’s role in journalism for Net Worked, and serves as Community Coordinator for SPJ. Veeneman also is Deputy Editor, Media Editor and a writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author’s unless otherwise indicated, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital executive, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.


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