We don’t know.

Those are three difficult words for a journalist to say. For many, it’s an admission of failure. We don’t know is a barrier to publication, dissemination. It means more work needs to be done, or that it’s time to stop and move on.

Seen another way, though, We don’t know is a starting point. You dig and ask questions because you don’t know. You push to find the unknown, and then bring it back and show the world.

That’s what Mark Little used to do as a correspondent and host for Ireland’s public broadcaster.

“When I started in journalism we were the guardians of scarce information,” he said when we sat down to talk at last week’s Online News Association conference in Boston. “We were sent out to hack away … and come back and show people the scarcity we had found. And now we’re the managers of overabundance.”

You’d think information overabundance would mean fewer instances of We don’t know. Little says it’s often the opposite.

“Sometimes something is not completely wrong or completely right and a layer of journalism has to begin at that point,” Little said. “And I think established journalism organizations don’t have the culture, most importantly, and certainly don’t have the structure to accommodate the kind of verification procedures you need.”

That reality led Little to found Storyful, an organization that from its homepage looks like a news curation operation dedicated to breaking and trending news from around the world. Yes, they’re doing that.

What I didn’t realize until Little began talking is that Storyful is also in effect operating as an outsourced verification service for other news organizations.

Some of the media partners Little mentioned included The New York Times, Reuters, YouTube, and the BBC ABC News, among others.* News organizations use the company’s StoryfulPro dashboard, a web app that features custom-curated Twitter lists about global events, locations, and breaking news, and a menu of newsworthy related video discovered via social media. There’s also a feed of updates coming in from the company’s twelve-member editorial staff of curators. It’s TweetDeck on steroids, curated and customized for news organizations. (Former CNN International journalist David Clinch is Storyful’s editorial director.)

Little also said that when one of their partners comes across a notable piece of social media content and aren’t sure of it’s origin, they often call Storyful to hunt it down and get an answer.

“Three words: it’s discovery, it’s verification, it’s delivery,” Little said to explain what they do. “I think that’s essentially the three component parts of the new form of social news.”

At this moment in time, there’s also an unexpected fourth component: dead bodies.

Five Days In The Gray

The video was gruesome, and came with a lot of questions. It showed people throwing dead bodies into a river. That part was clear. But everything else was a shade of gray. Unknown.

“We spent five days trying to verify a video which allegedly showed Muslim extremists throwing bodies into a river in Syria,” Little said. “We were told [by sources] that the river was dry this time of year. Other people said something different. Five days — at the end the conclusion was we don’t know.”

Those three words again. Little says them with a hint of frustration, but also an appreciation for their value and importance.

“I’ve seen dead bodies before,” he said, noting he used to run off to conflict zones and trouble spots.

But these days, he and his team see a lot of them. They come in videos and pictures shared online by people claiming to be in places like Syria. Storyful’s editorial team tracks this emerging information as it’s shared via Twitter and other places, and then they work to confirm its authenticity.

As Little detailed in a blog post, they check maps, listen to accents, cross-reference the weather to see if what they’re looking at matches the time, place and situation the material purports to represent.

In the case of the supposedly Syrian video, they worked and worked but in the end couldn’t vouch for its authenticity. What’s most important is to be able to live with the shades of gray, and to communicate that reality, according to Little.

“Number one, it’s as good to debunk a story as it is to be the one to break it,” Little said. “And number two, don’t be scared of ambiguity. Don’t be scared if at the end of a process of verification you just have to say to your partners ‘I’m sorry, we cannot stand over this.’ It’s just old values with a new boss.”

Who’s the new boss? Little says it’s the community.

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.