07 Mar 2012
The advent of new media has ended the scarcity in which mass media journalism functioned, with repercussions for both newsgathering and publishing.
No longer are audiences solely reliant on foreign reporters to tell the story of Homs or Hama. No longer is news delivered solely to the tempo demanded by the evening newscast or first edition.
At both ends of the news workflow, journalists are playing catch up, chasing the barrage of content being published on the web in a bid to keep ‘on top of the story’ and publishing more rapidly so as not to be left behind, as on a liveblog.
This is particularly true of the reporting of the Middle East. Where in the world has citizen media been used so powerfully in the midst of such colossal social and political change?
The most important value proposition that news organizations have to bring to the gathering and delivery of this news is the dispassionate process by which professional journalists sort what is accurate from what is not. It is this process on which their reputations are built and their integrity hangs - it is central to their raison d’etre.
(That might sound lofty in light of recent revelations about certain tabloid outfits in the UK and the ongoing use of state media in some countries of the Middle East to spread propaganda. But one failed model doesn't mean all news orgs are bad. There remains no better way to codify a set of values - ethical news values - than through a company or institution. Good news organizations remain important in providing the public with information and holding governments to account.)
In short, news organizations need to focus more on new methods for verifying citizen media.
Are journalists approaching the verification of citizen media in a methodological way as they would a story developed in-house? Our research suggests the process is often quite ad hoc.
We have found, for example:
not all news organizations are building databases of information about citizen sources
routines for requesting critical information about citizen content are quite ad hoc
online techniques for relating reports that could corroborate each other are under-developed
there is no new media methodology for sharing with readers 'the working out' - ie. the verification work that has been done before publishing on a piece of citizen media
The result is an outdated “verified’” / “unverified” binary. The tendency is to say “we cannot verify this content,” even though there is a tacit assumption shared with the user that the content is valid and accurate — why else would you publish it?
This points to the need to have a better range of disclaimers on citizen media that move towards a more nuanced description of the work that has been done to research the content.
There now needs to be a new desk in the newsroom, a desk for checking this citizen-generated content — and over time building the routines and databases that will help journalists know whom to trust and how to get the information they need.
But to tackle this problem in-house and alone would confront news organizations with unmanageable costs just at the time when they are facing revenue constraints.
Meedan is working on this problem - clearly a very difficult nut to crack - and is interested to learn from your experiences.
We have developed a participatory liveblog with leading Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. We are now preparing a second iteration of this platform called Checkdesk.
Checkdesk is an approach to supporting news organizations to make better sense of citizen reports through the same people who now produce the majority of the world’s media output: the citizens.
Checkdesk is a desk where you check citizen media before publishing it on. It is not an attempt to automate truth. It is rather an attempt to facilitate collaborative verification. We are trying to tackle the very challenging problem of how to sort and verify the ever expanding output from citizen media through collaboration.
Our hypothesis, if you like, is that by building a community of volunteer news hacks capable of jointly providing lots of pieces of small information, the journalist can better sort the accurate and important content from the dangerous, misleading or doctored content.
Perhaps you need to identify the location of report using a landmark and a map. Or maybe you need a translation.
And what if users get it wrong, perhaps intentionally? Transparency and community engagement remain the best checks against abuse on the social web.
Many news organizations are already doing verification in comment threads and Twitter accounts, but without coherent strategy — Checkdesk provides a flexible framework for this strategy in the contemporary newsroom, with certain core routines built in.
We will be blogging more about Checkdesk in the coming weeks. But until then, how would you structure a fact-checking workflow in the newsroom?