1. When Emergency News Breaks

Written by Craig Silverman and Rina Tsubaki

“... There is a need on the part of all journalists to never assume anything and to always cross-check and verify in order to remain trusted sources of news and information.”

- Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography, The Associated Press

After an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck northern India, it wasn’t long before word circulated that 4,000 buildings had collapsed in one city, causing “innumerable deaths.” Other reports said a college’s main building, and that of the region’s High Court, had also collapsed.

It was a similar situation when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit northeastern Japan. People heard that toxic rain would fall because of an explosion at an oil company’s facilities, and that it was not possible for aid agencies to air drop supplies within the country.

They were false rumors, every single one of them.

It’s a fundamental truth that rumors and misinformation accompany emergency situations. That earthquake in India? It occurred in 1934, long before the Internet and social media. The earthquake in Japan came in 2011.

Both quakes resulted in rumors because uncertainty and anxiety - two core elements of crises and emergency situations - cause people invent and repeat questionable information.

“In short, rumors arise and spread when people are uncertain and anxious about a topic of personal relevance and when the rumor seems credible given the sensibilities of the people involved in the spread,” write the authors of “Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend.”

An article in Psychology Today put it another way: “Fear breeds rumor. The more collective anxiety a group has, the more inclined it will be to start up the rumor mill.”

In today’s networked world, people also intentionally spread fake information and rumors as a joke, to drive “likes” and followers, or simply to cause panic.

As a result, the work of verification is perhaps most difficult in the very situations when providing accurate information is of utmost importance. In a disaster, whether its cause is natu- ral or human, the risks of inaccuracy are amplified. It can literally be a matter of life and death.

Yet amid the noise and hoaxes there is always a strong signal, bringing valuable, important information to light. When a US Airways flight was forced to land on the Hudson River, a man on a ferry was the source of an urgent, eye-opening image that only a bystander could have captured at that moment:

People on the ground are even more valuable in places where journalists have little or no access, and aid agencies have not been able to operate. Today, these witnesses and participants often reach for a phone to document and share what they see. It could be a bystander on a boat in a river - or a man who just walked away from a plane crash, as with this example from 2013:

The public relies on official sources such as news organizations, emergency services and government agencies to provide cred- ible, timely information.

But, at the same time, these organizations and institutions increasingly look to the public, the crowd, to help source new information and bring important perspective and context. When it works, this creates a virtuous cycle: Official and established sources of information - government agencies, NGOs, news organizations - provide critical information in times of need, and work closely with the people on the ground who are first to see and document an emergency.

To achieve this, journalists and humanitarian and emergency workers must become adept at using social media and other sources to gather, triangulate and verify the often conflicting information emerging during a disaster. They require proven processes, trustworthy tools, and tried and true techniques. Most of all, they need to gain all of the aforementioned before a disaster occurs.

A disaster is no time to try to verify on the fly. It’s not the moment to figure out what your standards and practices are for handling crowdsourced information. Yet it’s what many - too many - newsrooms and other organizations do.

Fortunately, an abundance of tools, technologies and best practices have emerged in recent years that enable anyone to master the new art of verification, and more are being developed all the time.

It is, in the end, about achieving a harmony of two core elements: Preparing, training and coordinating people in advance and during an emergency; and providing them with access and resources to enable them to take full advantage of the ever-evolving tools that can help with verification.

The combination of the human and the technological with a sense of direction and diligence is ultimately what helps speed and perfect verification. Admittedly, however, this is a new combination, and the landscape of tools and technologies can change quickly.

This book synthesizes the best advice and experience by drawing upon the expertise of leading practitioners from some of the world’s top news organizations, NGOs, volunteer and technical communities, and even the United Nations. It offers essential guidance, tools and processes to help organizations and professionals serve the public with reliable, timely information when it matters most.

The truth is that good professionals often fall for bad information, and that technology can lead us astray just as much as it can help. This can be even more true when so much information is moving at such a fast pace, and when so many newsrooms and organizations lack formal verification training programs and processes.

“The business of verifying and debunking content from the public relies far more on journalistic hunches than snazzy technology,” wrote David Turner in a Nieman Reports article about the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub. “While some call this new specialization in journalism ‘information forensics,’ one does not need to be an IT expert or have special equipment to ask and answer the fundamental questions used to judge whether a scene is staged or not.”

This realization that there is no silver bullet, no perfect test, is the starting point for any examination of verification, and for the work of providing reliable information in a disaster. This requires journalists and others to first look to the fundamentals of verification that have existed for decades and that won’t become obsolete.

Steve Buttry focuses on a core question at the heart of verification in his chapter. Joining that is this list of fundamentals:

  • Put a plan and procedures in place before disasters and breaking news occurs.
  • Develop human sources.
  • Contact people, talk to them.
  • Be skeptical when something looks, sounds or seems too good to be true.
  • Consult credible sources.
  • Familiarize yourself with search and research methods, and new tools.
  • Communicate and work together with other professionals - verification is a team sport.

One other maxim that has been added to the above list in recent years is that when trying to evaluate information - be it an image, tweet, video or other type of content - you must verify the source and the content.

When The Associated Press promoted Fergus Bell to take the lead in creating and practicing its process for confirming user-generated video, he first looked to the organization’s long- standing guidance on verification, rather than to new tools and technology.

“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 said. “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.”

By starting with these fundamentals, organizations can begin to build a reliable, repeatable process for verifying information during emergency situations. Verifying information on social networks, be it claims of fact, photos or video, becomes easier once you know your standards, and know how to apply them.

That’s when it’s possible to make the best use of tools such as EXIF readers, photo analysis plug-ins, advanced Twitter search, whois domain lookups and the other tools outlined in this book.

Along with that toolkit, and the standards and processes that inform how we use the tools, there is also the critical element of crowdsourcing: bringing the public into the process and working with them to ensure we all have better information when it matters most.

Andy Carvin, who recently left the job of senior social strategist at NPR, is perhaps the most celebrated and experienced practitioner of crowdsourced verification. He said the key is to work with the crowd to, as the NPR motto goes, “create a more informed public.”

“When a big story breaks, we shouldn’t just be using social media to send out the latest headlines or ask people for their feedback after the fact,” he said in a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival.

He continued:

We shouldn’t even stop at asking for their help when trying to cover a big story. We should be more transparent about what we know and don’t know. We should actively address rumors being circulated online. Rather than pretending they’re not circulating, or that they’re not our concern, we should tackle them head-on, challenging the public to question them, scrutinize them, understand where they might have come from, and why.

This book is a guide to help all of us - journalists, emergency responders, citizen reporters and everyone else - gain the skills and knowledge necessary to work together during critical events to separate news from noise, and ultimately to improve the quality of information available in our society, when it matters most.

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