Unknown Quantities

How social network verification can show us what we don’t know

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.

“The most important piece of the puzzle is what we call the human algorithm, where every news event creates a community,” he said. “First, it tends to gather on Twitter and it has members who are original sources and it has amplifiers and a whole range of filters; and then you have a whole lot of mainstream journalists joining in, people like Andy Carvin who will become the gatekeepers there. What we are relying on is that community to call bullshit. To basically say, ‘This is something which you should discount.’”

The earlier you identify that community, the sooner you understand the reality of the news that’s emerging. Along with the concept of the “human algorithm,” Little has a term to describe the moment when the community begins to gather: the inflection point.

Inflection Point

What if a journalist could have connected the dots between a tweet about a helicopter in Abbottabad, Pakistan and a raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

This is the holy grail of real-time news coverage: being able to match context with content in a way that reveals hidden truth. Or events that are just now becoming newsworthy.

That’s the inflection point, and here’s how Little previously expressed it:

Real-time stories challenge the old rules of news. We believe every story starts with a single voice, not a conversation in a newsroom. There is no such thing as a scoop, just a story before its inflection point. Storyful’s golden rule is there is ALWAYS someone closer to the story.

Their job is to find those people, to see what they’re sharing, and to then pass the credible information and material along to Storyful’s partners. The big push within Storyful right now is to find better ways to bring technology to bear.

“Our next step is to create systems and software,” Little said. “If you think about TweetDeck, [it would be great] if we can improve TweetDeck to provide us with the ability to not just to build lists but to interpret them and really just track conversations and communities that are evolving.”

The dream, he said, is to find a way to capture and identify “the moment at which a community beings to gather.”

A New Kind of News Service

Inflection point. Human algorithm. Outsourced verification. Dead bodies. It’s a lot to process.

The biggest takeaway for me is the emergence of specialized organizations like Storyful that focus on discovery and verification of information on social networks.

Other news organizations also engage in this activity; but it makes sense that there’s a need for specialists. The tools and discipline are advancing at such a fast rate that it requires a specialized focus. It’s also not always viable for big media brands to insert themselves into the communities that emerge around news events, or to dedicate resources to verify the content flowing in on social networks.

I see the need. The question is, can verification form the basis of a viable business? Storyful provides a test case, but as of today there’s only one answer.

We don’t know.

Correction of the Week

“On Monday, 26 September, we published an article which claimed that Katie Price was involving her son, Junior, in violent pursuits and that this was of deep concern to her ex-husband, Peter Andre. In fact our story was incorrect and Katie has simply taken Junior to a noncontact fun fitness class designed by MMA trainer Sol Gilbert. We apologise to Katie.” — Daily Star (U.K.)

Correction: This piece originally said that the BBC was one of the organizations to have partnered with Storyful. In fact, Storyful has partnered with ABC News, not the BBC. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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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. Tags: , , , , ,