Tiffany Little

is sharing always caring? part three: source-ry!

Welcome to the third and penultimate installment in this genie’s musings on ‘internet sharing’. My first post was sparked by discovering a death in my family via Facebook and in it I appraised current trends in personal sharing on social networks. It was followed by a second post which took a step back, focusing on real time distribution of world news and the role social media plays, for better or worse. This post examines the realities of fact checking!

ooh, foxy

Given that I spent some time in the last post talking about how there is a need for balance between mainstream news sources and live feeds like Twitter, I find the unveiling of the new-look Fox studios rather timely. Fox raised more than a few eyebrows with their Star Trek style command centre and super sized touchscreens but I find the principles behind this shift interesting. Fox claim this new super centre will be focused on assessing live streams and fact checking as news unravels, all under the eyes of watchful cameras. Admirable? Yes. Practical? Perhaps not…

breaking news vs breaking facts

I noted, one of the biggest pitfalls media houses tumble into when dabbling with the world wide web is rushing: circulating unverified information in a bid to be the one with the scoop. This behaviour however is not new, or exclusive, to internet sharing and has been around for some time, what is new and worrying is the reach the misinformed ‘scoop’ has. As I said previously…

While the internet allows for immediacy, mainstream news sources should not rush to publish unverified information—online or otherwise—just to ensure they still have the internet’s full attention. The importance of verified sources is even more key, when information is so readily available.

While Fox’s intentions may be good, I don’t feel it is necessarily practical. Their new set up is primed to act as a backdrop to unfolding events but I fear it may not provide the action packed newsroom bustling they might hope for.

the facts

Verification is not always completed by journalists, usually it’ll be outsourced—whether that is to experts in a given field, or just someone else to do the leg work—it’s not something they can necessarily take on personally and that’s because tracking down the facts is a long and arduous process. Anyone who’s ever had to write an essay will know the frustrations of locating sources and checking their legitimacy. It boils down to consideration of the following:

  • Authorship
  • Publishing body
  • Purpose, point of view or bias
  • Referral to other sources
  • Verifiability
  • Currency

Consider authorship, can the author/creator be identified, what about their credentials? Are they well informed and qualified to write on the given topic? Why is that the case? Can you contact them with queries? Are there any links to a homepage and does that homepage belong to an individual or an organisation? In the case of an organisation, how reputable are they? Do they appear to support or sponsor the individual’s articles? What does the domain name/URL reveal about the source if anything? And if you can’t identify the author/owner what are you able to glean from the origins of the content from address?

Bleurgh, it’s a lot to think about, right? Can all of the above principles be applied to a thread on reddit or a bunch of tweets? And even if it can be done in theory, realistically how long would that take? Given how quickly something is amplified in the midst of a twitter storm, it’s going to be time consuming to apply all of these considerations to every twitter user involved although there a number of quick checks that can be run in real time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

ooh, source-y

I had a chat with an investigative journalist pal around the role of social networks in journalism. He believes they’re useful in a limited capacity but—as I’ve highlighted previously—there are clear dangers in relying too heavily on them.

His view? They’re a good starting point—you may find the seeds of a story strewn across social media—but its main use is in helping you track down individuals who may be key sources for research. Social networks say a lot about people; you can glean a Facebook account number from the filenames they assign to photos! So throw in tagging associates and locations like Foursquare check ins? It all go towards building a profile of the individual, making it easier to track them down in person.

in conclusion

It seems clear to me that treating anything you discover on social media as a definitive source is not an option—better to treat it like an overheard snatch of conversation, sure it piques your interest but out of context it has no credibility: if it cannot be proved in a court of law, it’s better to abandon the story or work to gather more evidence until such a time as it can… But just how easy is it to track down that evidence and if it’s content, how can you ensure you’re not infringing on someone’s intellectual property? I’ll let you know in my next post but in the meantime, don’t be shy, come let me know what you think! =]

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