Editor Fergus Bell explains how AP verifies user-generated content from Sandy to Syria

Hurricane Sandy was the kind of event Fergus Bell was promoted to help handle.

Bell was recently named AP’s Social Media & UGC Editor, International thanks to his work sourcing and verifying user-generated content for the organization.

So when Sandy struck, he and AP social media editor Eric Carvin worked to sift through what they called “a deluge of photos and videos depicting dramatic, genuine moments from the storm” in addition to “an extraordinary amount of fabricated content.”

This is where the UGC verification process developed by Bell was especially handy.

In a recent interview, Bell told me AP’s UGC verification process was built on top of the cooperative’s existing verification process and policies. UGC can require special verification practices, but in the end it has to meet AP standards.

“AP has always had its standards and those really haven’t changed, and it was working with those standards that we were able to specifically set up workflows and best practices for dealing with social media,” Bell says. “So AP has always strived to find the original source so that we can do the reporting around it. And that’s always the way that we go about verifying UGC. We can’t verify something unless we speak to the person that created it, in most cases.”

The AP verified this Instagram photo of Jane’s Carousel provided by Ana Andjelic. The photo shows the Brooklyn, N.Y., carousel surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy on Monday, Oct. 30, 2012.

Given the reach of AP and the large number of customers and members that rely on it for content, an error made by Bell or his colleagues could spread far and wide. I asked how he deals with that risk.

“We don’t get it wrong,” he says.

The first part of not getting it wrong is to use the AP verification process that has been refined over many years. The second part is to develop a new UGC verification process that builds on existing best practices. The third part is to stick with the system, which means always taking the time to go though the process, and not being influenced by the urgency or novelty of a piece of content.

“Even if something is incredibly compelling and it doesn’t pass one of our steps, then it doesn’t go out,” Bell says. “That’s how we stop from being wrong, which is tough sometimes, especially when it’s something that’s really great.  But we just don’t put it out, because the [verification] system has grown organically and it hasn’t failed us yet, and so we trust it.”

Bell says one major goal of the process is to understand the context of the information.

“As a news organization we needed to get a context, and you can really only do that by verifying and understanding exactly what you’re seeing,” he says. “And so it went from just being able to monitor [social media], to find out ways that we could get a context and really kind of add value to the story, so that people knew what they were looking at.”

To help add context for its members and customers, AP recently added a new disclaimer to some of the content it provides. The new information describes the verification process used to validate any user-generated content contained in the AP’s reporting.

“Up until very recently we kept all of this to ourselves, but we know that people actually really want to see this stuff, and so we’ve started working it into all of our formats,” says Bell.

He provided a sample of the text that might accompany an AP video script:

++USER GENERATED CONTENT: UGC cannot be absolutely verified. This video has been authenticated based on the following validation checks:

++Video and audio translated and content checked by regional experts against known locations and events
++Video is consistent with independent AP reporting
++Video cleared for use by all AP clients by content creator

The above text is part of what Bell says is the evolution of the AP UGC verification process.

AP’s UGC process

So what does the process look like?

This image of AP’s UGC verification process was tweeted by The Wall Street Journal’s Liz Heron during a session on social media and user-generated content ethics at this year’s Online News Association Conference (click for larger):

One thing Bell emphasized during our conversation: the process is not actually meant to be interpreted as a circle. The two bolded elements – “Confirm & verify original source” and “Verify content & context” – are separate parts of the process.

AP’s UGC verification process has two tracks that must return an acceptable result on their own. If AP can verify the content but can’t locate and validate the source, it won’t sent out the content.

It’s a kind of two-line process where they are each done independently of the other,” Bell says. “… [W]hen I say we confirm a source, that means that we find the original source and we get permission to use it. By content it means that we understand what we’re seeing. So I may have verified the source, but I want to confirm myself that what they are telling me is true.”

One advantage for AP is its global reach. Bell will often makes use of local bureaus to assist with verification projects related to a specific geographic area.

“We can call up the bureau and say, what’s it like outside?” Bell says. “Or what was it like yesterday?”

But being the AP also has its challenges.

Unlike other news outlets, it can’t simply grab the embed code for a video on YouTube and place it in an online story. AP video content is streamed and must be delivered to AP standards and specifications. That includes having a source to credit for any material from elsewhere, and getting the proper permissions to distribute the content.

These can be constraints, but Bell also says they reinforce the requirement to locate and verify the source of a given piece of content. That helps with quality control.

In the AP universe, there’s no allowance for putting out a video or image that’s unconfirmed but could be true.

“We’ve always put out advisories, saying when we’re working on stories,” Bell says, “but when it comes to UGC, we only put stuff out when we can confirm it.”

This meant that in the early days of UGC verification at AP it sometimes took Bell and others longer than other outlets to provide content. But now that they’ve been working with the process and workflow consistently, Bell says they’re able to move faster without cutting corners.

“I think that we’re getting to a place now where we’re not restricted in terms of speed to get a story out, because we’re used to it now,” he said.

It’s good reminder: creating and instituting a process like this may seem time consuming and something that causes you to get beat by competitors. But speed can increase over time as people become adept at the required skills. You can be fast and accurate.

Activists enabling verification

One factor helping Bell and colleagues move quickly are the activists and others providing UGC in countries such as Syria. They’re doing more to enable the verification process for AP and others.

“We’ve definitely seen an evolution from Egypt to Syria,” Bell says. “In Syria the activists may have a Facebook page [for their content] and they will have ways to communicate with them; in Egypt we didn’t see that. It was raw material being pumped out as quickly as possible, and it was really difficult to get in touch with them.”

Tactics being used in Syria, according to Bell, include activists holding “up a sign in front of the camera to prove what day it is” and narrating a video “so that we can completely understand what they were saying, and we’re getting the information that was attached to that video by the creator.”

It’s an interesting example of how people on the ground are adapting to the verification needs of news organizations in order to ensure their content gets disseminated.

The emerging best practices for UGC verification are slowly improving the quality of UGC, and helping spread ethical information sharing practices.

The larger message is a powerful one: Holding ourselves to a high standard can encourage others to do the same.

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