Social journalism research helps explain how information is verified on Twitter

Alfred Hermida's research on social journalism can help journalists better understand verification and accuracy on Twitter. Two papers in particular caught my eye: "Tweets and Truth: Journalism as a Discipline of Collaborative Verification" and "Twittering the News: The emergence of ambient journalism."

Hermida, a founding member of the team who now serves as an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, also recently presented a paper at the International Symposium on Online Journalism about Andy Carvin's use of Twitter during the Arab Spring.

I interviewed Hermida by email about social journalism and the opportunities Twitter offers for sourcing and checking information. Our edited exchange follows.

Craig Silverman: "Tweets and Truth" offers some historical perspective about verification, and then looks at how the long-held views of this discipline are changing and being challenged. If you had to sum these changes up in a few sentences, how would you express it?

Alfred Hermida: A fundamental tenet of journalism has been that it should be based on verified facts. The processes for determining facts are far from perfect, subject to deadlines, availability of sources and judgments on the veracity of people and data.

Verification largely has taken placed in newsrooms, away from the public eye. Journalists were telling readers, "trust us, we're professionals." Yet a Pew Internet study in 2010 found that 71 percent of Americans believed most news sources were biased.

Real-time, networked technologies can unbundle the verification process. Contradictory reports and rumours can be contested or confirmed in public in exchanges that involve not just editors and journalists, but also members of public.

There are undoubtedly new skills and approaches to verification, and you spend time in your paper looking at the possibilities for crowdsourced verification. Before we talk about the new, I'm wondering what of the old values and approaches are still relevant in your view?

Hermida: A good journalist will approach any issue with a critical eye. The ability to sort fact from fiction, assess and interpret information and contextualise a story is just as valuable today as it was in the past, perhaps even more. What has changed is how a journalist does this and where they do it.

One section of Tweets and Truth speaks to how the new world of social media and networks are affecting journalists:

"Journalists’ concerns about the validity and accuracy of information on Twitter can be understood as an expression of an occupational culture that seeks to maintain jurisdiction over certain discursively, culturally, and epistemologically constructed forms of expertise."

I'm wondering how you think we can help some journalists get past these reservations and cultural barriers?

Hermida: Journalists have to be aware that the world of media has fundamentally changed. For the past 100 years, journalism has been based on an industrial model of production. It was a hierarchical model, where expertise and authority was in the hands of individuals and institutions collectively known as the press. To be a journalist, you needed to work for a company that owned the means of production.

Now anyone can take part in the gathering the news and reach a large number of people. This doesn't mean that everyone is a journalist. But it does mean that anyone can perform an act that was previously the domain of the journalist, such as tweeting about a breaking news event, recommending a news story or offering their analysis on an issue.

Journalists bring value to a distributed and open media network through providing perspective, insight, context and analysis. These have always been the ingredients for good journalism.

There's a passage in Twittering the News that I think is relevant:

"The BBC justified its decision on the grounds that there was a case 'for simply monitoring, selecting and passing on the information we are getting as quickly as we can, on the basis that many people will want to know what we know and what we are still finding out' " (Herrmann, 2009).

And then this is the newer paper, Tweets and Truth:

"Potentially then, Twitter offers one such system, where fragments of information are reported, contested, denied or verified in the open, involving both professional journalists and the public."

I think this is one of the areas where journalists struggle: When it is proper to release/retweet/share unconfirmed information? How do you do it responsibly, and in a way that helps the public, rather than confuse it?

Hermida: Journalists have always had to balance being fast and being accurate. Every news report is based on incomplete information, whether it was written in an hour or in a day.

The difference today is that the audience has access to a multitude of sources and it is very easy for incorrect information to circulate unchecked. There is a value in highlighting to audiences what is unconfirmed information, especially when it is circulating on social media.

The responsible way to do it is by being open and clear about information that is confirmed and verified versus details which are unknown or uncertain. Part of this process involves being transparent about the source of the information, even if came from a rival news outlet.

This doesn't mean that a journalist should report every rumour they've heard. They have to be responsible and consider the potential impact of even reporting when they are investigating a report of, for example, the death of a prominent person.

Networked verification turns journalism inside out as the processes that took place within the newsroom take place on an open network. It is hardly surprising that we are still figuring out how best to do this.

In "Tweets and Truth" you quote a journalist about the concept of audience expectations, and how they relate to live blogs: ‘‘On a live blog you are letting the reader in on what’s up there, and say: look, we’re letting you in on the process of newsgathering. There’s a more fluid sense of what’s happening’."

How do you think journalists and news orgs can help set expectations for readers when it comes to different applications of journalism? How do we help them understand the differences?

Hermida: There is a process of negociation between the journalist and reader when it comes to new means of communication. Together, they are working out a common language. For example, journalists and readers understand that the size of a headline or the placement of a story in a newspaper indicates its importance.

With live blogs, journalists may want to consider being very clear with the audience that this is an ongoing and evolving account of a news story. It is about being upfront that what is reported in the first hours in a live blog may change and even be wrong as more information emerges.

I also thought this passage from Twittering the News was relevant to our discussion:

"The growing volume of content on micro-blogging networks suggests that one of the future directions for journalism may be to develop approaches and systems that help the public negotiate and regulate this flow of awareness information, facilitating the collection and transmission of news. The purpose of these systems would be to identify the collective sum of knowledge contained in the micro-fragments and bring meaning to the data."

This suggests a more prominent role for technology in the new practice of verification. I'd agree that tools are becoming more important and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on where tech can be best applied, and where the human element is still preferable?

Hermida: As Marshall Mcluhan said, "Every new medium begins as a container for the old."

I compare our approach to verification today to the approach of companies like Yahoo to the Web in the late 1990s. Yahoo tried to index the Web by creating the equivalent of a Yellow Pages of the Internet. It drew on established approaches to tackle a new problem. Then along come two smart guys in a garage who realised that there was information in the network created by human choices on linking.

We are at a similar point today. Using traditional ways of verification are challenged by the velocity and volume of data, requiring a hybrid approaches that combines computer algorithms to parse the data and help it [be] manageable for a person to analyse and interpret.

Such algorithmic systems are programmed by humans but often missing from the equation is the editorial input of the journalist. This is a huge and emerging field in computer science but perhaps we will see a new topic in journalism schools: algorithmic literacies to help reporters understand how digital information is quantified, filtered, optimised and ranked.

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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