1) You receive information off-line of important but potentially inflammatory news
A prominent blogger received a text message during the last elections saying that certain candidates had been arrested. You might be tempted to share this information – to let your followers know and to see if anyone on social media can confirm or deny. But if the allegation is potentially explosive, it’s probably best to work off-line. A call to the candidate’s office or spokespeople or to accompanying journalists could clarify the matter quickly, at which point you might tweet to repudiate the SMS.
“Candidate X at his office and has not been arrested or otherwise contacted by the police, his spokesperson says. Text msgs alleging his arrest are FALSE”
If others begin to circulate the news on-line, address them directly.
“@exampleprofile, candidate x has NOT been arrested. I’ve confirmed this with his spokesperson. Please stop spreading rumors.”
2) Someone calls the newsroom (or your house) claiming to have photographic evidence of an event
It seems an odd scenario to mention here, but consider this. If you found an image circulating on-line, you’d be suspicious. But if someone called you, gave his or her name, then you might be more trusting, right? Well, that’s how one media house ended up printing a stock photo (taken long ago in a country far away) that misrepresented a significant event. However an image comes to you, do all the necessary due diligence on the person and photo. And keep in mind that there is such a thing as a Google picture search. Upload the picture to http://images.google.com/ and hit search. If it’s an old image, you’ll probably find it.
3) A public figure is making accusations against another public figure on Twitter.
A re-tweet is not an endorsement, right? It just means, “Look at this.” But re-tweeting any unconfirmed allegation, even one made by someone who might commonly be a source, is to give it a wider platform. If you feel you must share allegations or claims, preface your tweet with UNCONFIRMED or CHECKING ON THIS NOW. And make sure you re-tweet the response of the accused, if and when there is one.
4) Social media is going crazy with speculation and you STILL can’t get the right person on the phone to find out what’s happening.
There’s two key things to keep in mind in this brave new digital world. The first is that an information vacuum will be filled – and most likely with lies and misinformation. Verification takes time. While you’re waiting, tell people what you’re doing.
“Trying to reach the IEBC and NSC now to check on rumor X.”
You might follow up a few minutes later with a tweet like this.
“IEBC spokesperson couldn’t immediately confirm or deny; said she would investigate and get back to me.”
Social media gives journalists a chance to be more transparent than ever. Take that opportunity. Like they used to tell you in maths class, SHOW YOUR WORK. If you don’t have new information, keep your audience updated on what you’re doing to get it.
5) Several people on Twitter are witness to an event, but you still haven’t spoken to these witnesses or to any reliable source
Much of what has been said above applies here. Be clear about what YOU are doing to verify something. But it’s moments like this when journalists need to confront the new communications landscape. Andy Carvin, a journalist for NPR, has set a new standard for how to “crowd-source” your reporting. He covered the Arab Spring with social media, asking his followers “to act as editors and sources, fact-checking and verifying” the news. That said, Carvin also has a great network of blogger friends and does a lot of chatting with trusted members of his network through Facebook, Skype, email and even by phone. You can read about his techniques here: http://gigaom.com/2012/05/25/andy-carvin-on-twitter-as-a-newsroom-and-being-human/.
And this is a terrifically useful article on how to verify social media content. If enough people have claimed to witness an event on social media, and aspects of their accounts corroborate, then that may be good enough to run the story (not to say that you wouldn’t also try to confirm independently). Al Jazeera certainly thought crowd-sourced information was valid enough when it reported a fire at a Bosasa market based on the SMS messages it received during the Somali Speaks project.
6) You have more freedom on-line than you do on air (or in print)
Your editors don’t give you much slack, but you get to call the shots on social media. Many journalists use this opportunity to give their followers content that they can’t in broadcast or print, but this can actually create a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. Your audience will wonder, “Are the updates on your FB page, blog or Twitter account just as reliable? Are you being censored on air?” It’s best to be consistent across platforms, if you can. That raises issues of your employer’s social media policy that can’t be easily resolved. So if your social media work is going to be significantly different from the reports you make for your institution, then you should be transparent about why that is.
“I’m going to re-tweet comments that seem interesting today, but if you want the final word, tune in to our show at 8.”
7) Your own followers (on your blog, Facebook page or Twitter, etc.) are saying horrible things about other Kenyans.
There is a project here in Kenya to monitor so-called “dangerous speech,” which is anything that might potentially cause violence. The Umati Project gives a more thorough definition of dangerous speech on the Ushahidi blog that you should definitely read.
If you have the power to eliminate this kind of speech (by removing the offending comments from your blog or Facebook page, or by flagging them on Twitter), you should do so. Moreover, as a public figure, you have a responsibility to appeal for respectful debate (and reminding people what dangerous speech is). And if you want to report on incidents of dangerous speech (whether those are on-line or on the street), then avoid reproducing the speech lest you give the hate mongers a wider platform.
8) You can’t keep up with everything on social media.
There are lots of techniques and tools to help you cope with the torrent of social media. You can find a few of those here: http://www.journalism.co.uk/skills/how-to-use-social-media-in-newsgathering/s7/a550556/.
Not sure you’re following the right people? The Networked News Lab has put together a few lists of good Kenyan accounts to follow
As my former editor used to remind me: “speed kills.” Think first. And then tweet responsibly.
If you’re interested in reading more, I’ve also put together a list of resources on journalistic use of social media.