29 Jun 2012
An internal BBC report on its coverage of the Arab uprisings this week revealed that three quarters of reports containing citizen media failed to inform the audience about the source of that media.
The report, authored by Edward Mortimer for the BBC Trust, said that journalists should use caveats or disclaimers to warn the audience that this video content - often mobile phone footage - came from particular activists on the ground.
This striking, perhaps even alarming figure suggests that in the vast majority of reports on the Arab uprisings, BBC audiences did not have the tools to determine who was producing the video, whether it was authentic and whether it was representative of the full picture on the ground.
It shows again that big media organisations are increasingly reliant on citizen media from regions like the Middle East where some governments systematically impede access to journalists.
In short, there are still many lessons to learn about how best to use citizen media.
Overall, the report did praise the BBC for the 'rigorous' vetting process provided by the three teams that collectively handled Arab citizen media prepared for broadcast: the Arabic service, BBC Monitoring and the User Generated Content (UGC) Hub.
The report does, though, recommend that BBC should more systematically convey three things to the audience: 1) the source of the footage, 2) disclaimers as to the authenticity of the footage, and 3) evidence of the vetting process that has been done to ascertain the authenticity of that footage.
High profile mistakes show why these recommendations are so necessary.
Recently the BBC was caught out for reporting that an image taken by an Italian photographer in Iraq in 2003 had been obtained from an "activist" in Syria and showed the corpses of children killed in the Houla massacre of May 2012.
Less than an hour after that image was published, the photographer who took it had called the BBC out on Facebook.
This error demonstrates why the standard journalistic caveat - "this image cannot be independently verified" - is no longer enough.
The image could be independently verified - that it was a false representation of Houla - with a few creative searches (a scan using Google's Image Search would have returned the photo as a Getty Stock image, with the photographer's original caption. Additionally, counting the bodies would reveal far more children dead than any reports had suggested).
Rather what is needed is to show in the most transparent way possible the work being done to verify citizen produced content, and then to represent that systematically with visual cues that over time gain recognition.
Verification needs to be thought of as an ongoing process, rather than a possible/impossible binary, with a broader range of statements to show the level of confidence journalists have that citizen content is authentic and representative.
At Meedan, we are working on a toolset to help journalists be more systematic, collaborative and transparent in their fact checking, which we are currently prototyping for the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm and Syrian news network Al-Ayyam.
Our interest is to help journalists make better use of citizen content, to develop critical and investigative skills among 'audiences', and to forge a new open and evidence based journalism for our times.
Part of the pursuit of these goals involves having a debate about the value of fact checking, what good fact checking looks like, and how it should evolve to meet the changing realities of digital publishing.
It is a debate the BBC and many other big media organisations are also grappling with.