The “Line of Verification”

Posted: March 2, 2011 by Mike Carter in #7 Ethics

In the reporting past, the divide between what was verified truth and unverified rumor was easy to discern. Filtering the ‘noise’ was as easy as hanging up the phone, or otherwise ignoring a dicey source. Increasingly, in the web 2.0 world, journalists are easily duped by unverified sources. The influx of social media as a research tool for journalists has blurred the lines between what we know is true, and what we would like to report. Couple this with the perceived need to be the first to break the news, a very real pressure for modern journalists and news associations, and we have an ethical issue that we can’t ignore.

Matthew Eltringham Assistant Editor, Interactivity at BBC News has created a concept called the “Line of Verification” which calls for journalists to start providing a filter for the noise coming from social media networks. Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR has attempted to do this on Twitter by curating Twitter feeds as well as traditional wire services. During the revolution in Tunisia, Carvin developed a substantial following (30,000+).

Eltringham’s “Line of Verification” tackles an ethical problem in reporting 2.0, but does not claim to solve it. In short, it asks how we can properly maintain our use of social media networks. Journalism is an act of service and it is imperative that every journalist in the internet reporting world uses social media sources responsibly.

The theory perceives news in a ‘light side’ (confirmed fact) and ‘dark side’ (unconfirmed) dichotomy. The ‘dark side’ is all over social media networks which is where most people are plugged in, either receiving news or being connected to it in one way or another from there. Fact is, reporting what you see on Twitter in some cases isn’t just rumor, it can be part of the narrative of the story as it is unfolding, a wonderful thing that had been previously unavailable. It’s something that indeed should be embraced as long as it is made clear that what is being reported is not validated.

Here is an example of how Eltringham applied his working approach to verification from a blog post by Charlie Becket found here. Eltringham was attempting to help Carvin verify a question he had posted on his feed; a rumor that a local TV station in Tunisia had been taken over by protesters.

From Becket:

Matthew saw the tweet and asked the BBC’s authoritative BBC Monitoring team, who were watching broadcasts from Tunisia, whether it was true or not. They were able to confirm that apart from a brief interlude the station was continuing to broadcast the government line. He tweeted Andy Carvin to correct the rumor, a tweet that Andy himself retweeted widely. So the narrative moved to the light side of the Line of Verification. Social media and conventional media working in harness.

If I were running a news room I would implement a similar system of old-style verification as a checkpoint to the constant flood of news from social media networks. This one case may be hard to duplicate, but not if we use social media to verify accounts and not just to report them. We must embrace social media, but at the same time harness the tried and tested methods of news verification. As Eltringham put it:

“We need to change our reporting activity to engage with ‘stuff’ on the dark side of the line as part and parcel of our daily journalism. Social media unleashes the capacity of people to publish and share rumor, lies, facts and factoids. We – as a trusted broadcaster (along with other journalists of course) – become increasingly significant as a reference or clearing house, filtering fact from fiction.”

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