July 8, 2011

A July 4 fireworks show in downtown Philadelphia was marred by a shooting that sent crowds scattering, according to hundreds of tweets sent that night. But when reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News followed up with police, wrote Philly.com staffer Daniel Victor, they were told there had been no such shooting.

News organizations are learning that they can use social media to get the first, and firsthand, accounts of breaking news. But they face the challenge of verifying that information and deciding whether to publish those accounts.

The reports of the shooting, Victor wrote, “raised a difficult question totally new to the Twitter era: What do you do when the official account of an event is at odds with dozens, or even hundreds, of people reporting the opposite?”

The Philadelphia shooting incident occurred on an unusually large scale at a crowded public event. On any given day, though, news organizations that are paying attention to Twitter or other social media are likely to see firsthand reports of newsworthy incidents — a fire, a car crash, a crime scene.

How do you decide what to do with that information? Every situation is different, but the considerations are the same. There are three distinct questions to evaluate:

  • How credible is the information?
  • How important is it to your audience?
  • And how urgent is the situation?

With carefully thought-out answers to these questions, you’ll be in good position to decide how to proceed.

Evaluating credibility

Consider the social history of the source. Has this person been on the network for years, or is this a brand-new account with no profile photo, friends or history? Has the person regularly posted information that was credible? In the rare case that someone deliberately tries to spread false information, it will probably be from a newly created or fictitious account, not from a social profile someone spent years building up.

Ask: Was the source in a position to know what he claims to know? Much social media misinformation comes from sources who are mistaken, not outright liars.

  • Determine if he witnessed the event firsthand or is passing along hearsay. Does this person live nearby or know the people involved?
  • Consider whether the source made assumptions. Did he really see fire or just smoke?
  • Think critically about whether the source could have missed something important. Was she driving by (less reliable) or standing at the scene?

Try to pose these questions directly to the source, and if you can’t, analyze whatever context you can find.

Seek official corroboration. Do police, firefighters, traffic cameras or any other official sources of information back up the claim?

Seek social corroboration. Are other social network users posting similar, independent reports from the same location? If a tornado really touched down in a city of 8 million people, for example,  there ought to be more than one photo of it. Be sure to look for other primary-source reports, not just retweets or messages based on the account you already have. As Victor (who is a friend and former colleague of mine) phrased it, “reporters cannot mistake quantity for reliability.”

Evaluating importance

Credibility and verification is the most important piece of the decision, but not the only one. In many cases you’ll reach some degree of confidence in the report, but fall short of certainty. You should also consider the nature of the information itself.

Ask yourself these questions:

How important is the information to the news that you’re covering? Is it a fundamental claim (“There was a shooting at the fireworks tonight”) or an incidental fact (There must have been 5,000 people at the fireworks tonight”)?

How important is the story to your general newsgathering mission? Is the overall story something important enough to consider taking a risk? Or is it a minor story with little public impact or interest?

What are the risks and rewards of publishing this information? If it turns out to be wrong, what damage would your report have caused? If it’s true and you withhold it, how underinformed would your readers be?

Evaluating urgency

In addition to credibility and importance, you need to be aware of how time-sensitive the situation is. Consider whether the information is urgent, and whether it may become irrelevant if you wait too long to make your decision.

How quickly must you decide what to do? What damage could be caused by waiting to publish this, perhaps until you become more confident in your source’s account? Is there a benefit to waiting? If you are dealing with a report of an alleged ongoing public safety incident, you must consider the value of alerting others to the potential danger as soon as possible.

All of these factors should weigh into your decision. Consider the overall credibility of the source and your confidence in the accuracy of the report. Decide how important the information and the overall news story are to your audience. And weigh whether the information is time-sensitive and requires an immediate decision.

If you decide to publish the information, you should disclose to your audience how you received and vetted the information, and you should note any caveats or conflicting reports. Be transparent about your difficult decision, which will empower the audience to make their own call about whether to trust the information.

Here’s how the Daily News handled the fireworks incident: A report posted online at 12:46 a.m. noted the claims of a shooting, but also said that there was no evidence of one. And, also important, the Daily News asked for more tips to help advance the story.

“At such a stalemate,” Victor wrote, “reporters are best off telling readers exactly what they know and exactly what they don’t know.”

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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