First Draft News taming the Wild West of social media

A breaking news event pops up on your social media feed. Before you can send your reporter to the scene, the best pictures and videos are already captured by eye witnesses. But can you trust and use their materials? How do you verify them?

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 23, 2015

Launched today, aims to guide newsroom editors and journalists in verifying user-generated content.

Designed as a central resource platform, it features expert advice, online tools, case studies, new technology, manuals for self-learning and guides like the attached “visual verification guide” on the bottom of this page.

A guide to verifying user-generating content hopes to “open up the conversation around the use of eye witness media in news reporting with a strong focus on ethics, verification, copyright and protection.” And a quick glance at Buzzfeed’s list of social media rumours related to the Paris attacks shows how this resource is much needed.

“This site is intended to help journalists, quickly, accurately and ethically get materials they need,” Alastair Reid, Managing Editor of

More than 500 million tweets are posted every day and more than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. “It’s a completely new ecosystem today and the old processes don’t necessarily apply,” said Reid.

“People called it the Wild West; there was so much difference between so many different media organizations and so many problems, we needed a solution,” said Claire Wardle, Research Director at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and co-founder of the Eyewitness Media Hub. is a product of the First Draft Coalition which was created in June this year. It currently includes nine organizations: citizen investigative website Bellingcat, non-profit Eyewitness Media Hub, real-time rumour tracker Emergent, digital tool provider Meedan, online news publication, newsroom and media consultancy Dig Deeper, social media news agency Storyful, online tool directory Verification Junkie and Google News Lab.

Real or fiction?
One of the biggest problems in the use of eye witness materials is verification. In an age where speed often trumps verification, some media companies have fallen prey to false materials online.

An example is the story of the Senegalese refugee making his way to Spain which was initially featured by the Huffington Post. It later turned out to be the work of a Spanish production company, which created the fake news story to make us reflect on images of migration in the media.

Another video hoax showed a Syrian boy dodging gun fire to save a Syrian girl. It went viral on Youtube and was picked up by several news channels before its Norwegian director Lars Klevberg revealed it was staged to stir a public debate on children in warzones.

A central place for verification tools
Some of the tools of verification involve simply getting in touch with the creator and not just the uploader, requesting the original files, looking through its metadata, checking the location by cross-referencing with Google earth and doing reverse image searches to ensure that the material is real.

“There is increased reliance, but also ignorance because the field changes so quickly,” said Wardle. During a training session she ran at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she was surprised how few of the young students were aware of the tools available to verify user-generated content.

Hence the goal of the website: to centralize tools and expertise, so that people can access it easily. “It is a place where I can direct my students and also pull resources so they can read and practice those skills, ” Wardle.

The ethics of using user-generated content
The site also aims to educate on the ethical use of user-generated content. In the research that Wardle conducted, she found that news agencies were “poor at acknowledging when they are using user-generated content, and worse at crediting the individuals responsible for capturing it.”

In addition, Wardle noted that there is often a lack of care for the eye witnesses who could be traumatized by the breaking news story and may not be fully aware of the consequences of publicizing the content they had captured. The eye witness who published the video of the killing of a Parisian police officer during the Charlie Hebdo shooting, later regretted sharing the content, but many news agency still ran the footage in full.

“Some of the eye witnesses do not know what it means to have their names in google search, or share video of dead victims before family is contacted, and what it feels like to be in the center of a media storm,” said Wardle. “A lot of what we are doing is to support the media industry, but it is also to protect eye witnesses, to ensure this ecosystem is ethical.”


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