Craig Silverman explains how The Verification Handbook closes a gap in social media best practices

What are the best practices for verifying information on social media? What are the common misconceptions journalists have about user-generated content? These are some of the questions The Verification Handbook, a new resource for journalists, hopes to answer. The free resource was developed by the European Journalism Centre, based in the Netherlands, and authored by leading journalists from BBC, Storyful and ABC among others.

 J-Source Education Editor Melanie Coulson interviewed Craig Silverman, the editor of the book.

J-Source: Why did you want to create this book?

Craig Silverman: Verification is at the core of what we as journalists (are supposed to) do. But apart from some basic instruction in journalism school or the early part of a career, I think most of us are left to our own devices to develop and maintain our verification skills. That's not good enough these days, what with an ocean of information, images and video being created and shared every minute, and the necessity to filter, organize and present the best and most notable of it. This book offers journalists a roadmap and resource for verification in the age of smartphones, networks and citizen journalism.

A second, related motivation is to make these skills—and the skeptical approach that underpins them—available to everyone, whether journalist or not. All of us can benefit from the mindset and tools outlined in the book.

J-Source: How did you decide who should write in this book?

CS: I worked with Rina Tsubaki at the European Journalism Centre to create an outline of what needed to be covered. Then it was a matter of thinking of the best possible person to write each chapter and case study. I tried to match the subject matter to the person, as a way of ensuring we had the best possible person writing about each chapter/case study. I've been referring to the group of contributors as an all-star verification team. You could also call them the Verification Justice League, or the Verification Avengers. My one regret is there's no budget for superhero costumes…yet.

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J-Source: Who do you hope reads it?

CS: We focused on two core audiences: journalists and humanitarian aid workers. These two groups need access to the best, most accurate information in times of emergency or natural disasters; they also have a responsibility to push out accurate information to the public. 

However, the skills and mindset outlined in the book are useful to anyone. We're all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what's happening. This book can be of value to anyone who wants to get a sense of how to judge the credibility of information they see on social networks. I hope it's used in news literacy efforts, by teachers and anyone else who wants to help spread the skills of bullshit detection.

J-Source: What do news organizations/journalists need to learn about verifying online content? 

CS: The first thing to keep in mind is that the fundamentals of verification still apply: seek out the original source and talk to them; be skeptical of all information; ask yourself and your sources, "How do you know that?"; work together with colleagues to backstop each other—I like to say that verification is a team sport.

Second, understand that you need to verify the source and the content independently. Investigate both and compare what you find to make a better call.

Third, realize that the content and information you see online has often been changed, scraped, manipulated or removed out of context from the original. Maybe that's a real picture, but does it show what the person claims? The networked world means things spread, get remixed and re-appropriated.

Fourth, there's an abundance of free tools out there that can help you track someone down and verify the content. So familiarize yourself with things like reverse images search, EXIF viewers, Google Maps and Wikimapia, Whois searchers, etc. This toolkit can help you do a better job—but it still comes down to making the right call.

J-Source: When do you see journalists making the most errors? Is the pace of breaking news breaking down our fact-checking reflexes?

CS: There are errors we make daily just in the course of doing our jobs: misspelled names, incorrect dates, misquotes. These have always been there and, unfortunately, always will be. Errors are a by-product of journalism, and unfortunately most newsrooms do not put effort into creating and implementing prevention strategies.

When it comes to breaking news, there's no question that's a scenario where error thrives. Part of the reason is the natural human tendency to want to amplify important (though often alarming and false) information during a crisis. In the introduction to the book, I compare an earthquake in India in 1934 with one in Japan in 2011. Both saw rumors spread quickly, causing panic and confusion. So social media amplifies what has been taking place forever in breaking news/crisis situations. The difference today is the speed at which information spreads and the amount of people who can participate in the creation and distribution of that information. 

I do think journalists are struggling to find the right balance between restraint and urgency. Notice I didn't say between speed and accuracy. The fact is you can be fast and accurate—but it requires practice, planning and collaboration. Why do so many newsrooms fall down when big news breaks? Often, it's a lack of preparation and organization. The heat of the moment is no time to try to figure out your verification and approvals process.

J-Source: You've written your Regret the Error blog since 2004. Corrections are your expertise. What did you learn while editing this book? What surprised you?

CS: I learned a lot about the different techniques used for verifying UGC video. I've not spent a lot of time with Google Maps to apply it to verification, but it can be very powerful (See this case study: I also had very little knowledge about disaster preparedness for newsrooms, so I learned a huge amount from that chapter. I think a lot of the elements and advice contained in that chapter apply to general breaking news planning. And related to that, the case study about how Japanese public broadcaster NHK covers disasters was totally eye-opening. They have a very impressive operation that involves 500 robot cameras and helicopters positioned all over the country.  

J-Source: You have sections in this book about “putting the crowd to work.” Can journalists trust the crowd and user-generated content?

CS: The default position is to not trust what you see. This will never change. 

However, over time you can build up a network of sources who have knowledge and access that you don't. That's always been expected of journalists—the difference today is you can do it on such a huge scale and with sources from all over the world. The "crowd" is a wellspring of information and insight. But you have to know how to find it and verify it. These are essentials skills for any journalist today.

If you work to participate in the communities that relate to the work you do, to build contacts and relationships, you can be better prepared and have access to better information. And if you apply the discipline of verification to what you find and are told, you will uncover really valuable information. 

But remember, the crowd isn't merely a tool to serve your interests. Mathew Ingram's chapter emphasizes the need to participate, to give as much as you take. Basically, realize the crowd is made of humans, and you need to act like one, too. 

J-Source: Why did you decide The Verification Handbook should be free?

Fortunately, it was already decided by the European Journalism Centre when they went out to secure funding for the project. They previously released the free Data Journalism Handbook, so there was a template in place. They knew what it would take to get this done and get it out in digital and print formats, and to also get it translated. As of now, the web version is up, in English. But soon it will be in PDF, Kindle, Arabic and on and on.

Making it free ensures the largest number of people can use it. That's tremendously important. This project isn't about making royalties or hitting a bestseller list. It's about spreading the skills and knowledge to ensure a better informed society and to help reduce the amount of misinformation spreading during emergencies and breaking news.

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