Twitter is the world news wire of the twenty-first century; immediate, instantaneous information from across the globe, at your finger tips at any time. Everyone knows exactly how useful microblogging can be when reporting on everything from major world events, such as natural disasters and social upheaval, to local happenings - but the challenge of real-time reporting is not gaining access to information, but rather verifying it.
This prompts the question: how best to verify news gathered from social media, particularly if official sources contradict what the twittersphere portrays as truth? As Daniel Victor reports, this was the challenge faced by reporters from the Philadelphia Daily News, when on July 4th Twitter presented journalists with news about a shooting in the city, a shooting of which the police had no knowledge.
So, how do large new organisations go about tackling situations like this and what is the best model to imitate? In his Reuters' Institute, University of Oxford, Fellowship Paper, entitled 'Tweet First, Verify Later?' , Nicola Bruno examines the strategies used by the BBC, The Guardian and CNN to establish the credibility of online sources and information. Bruno draws comparisons between the centralised 'hub' for social media and online reports used by the BBC, the "community-centred" approach adopted by CNN and the embedded "community coordinators" at The Guardian.
To briefly outline the approaches discussed in Bruno's paper:
The BBC adopts a less immediate "verify first" approach and has one entire department dedicated to this task, the so called 'User Generated Content Hub', which uses an intranet service to communicate with other departments and notify them when a source has been vetted and validated, thus allowing the online news to be distributed on all BBC News platforms. Although, the contact details of said source are notably only available after a request has been made to the USG Hub so as to protect sources from being inundated with requests from journalists.
CNN's strategy is quite different. Their online service iReport creates a community where users can post uncensored and un-curated content online. Stories from iReport are marked as vetted after having been authenticated and are then used in CCN broadcasts. The disadvantage of sharing so much unverified information is that rumour doesn't care if information is accurate or not. Despite the fact the CNN iReport story was marked as unverified, this still didn't stop the rumour that Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, had suffered a heart attack from spreading like wildfire.
The Guardian is well known for embracing media and storytelling platforms of all kinds, hence each section has at least one dedicated 'community coordinator' who manages online interaction with the readers, listening to feedback and responding to what they have to say. The Guardian is also keen on following a 'live-blog' strategy that aims to be as immediate as possible, often using the twitter accounts of individual Guardian journalists. It is not afraid to publish as-of-yet invalidated information, provided that it comes with a disclaimer, and that any information which is later found to be invalid is then reported as such.
So which strategy is the winner? All have pros and cons, but ultimately the verification strategy of any news organisation must suit the philosophy and the resources of the company. In the end, verification comes down to asking simple questions like 'Who?', 'What?', 'Where?' and 'When?', as Poynter illustrates in its guide to verification. If people such as Paul Bradshaw can rapidly and effectively create methods of verification like '@autodebunker', then information can still be authenticated even in a fairly short timescale.
It is not necessary to choose between accuracy and immediacy; the future of quality journalism, which at the current times seems so marred by unethical practice, lies in a successful combination of the two.