SXSWi Day 3: Four Challenges of Social News Gathering (Some May Surprise You)

Journalists and news organizations are turning to the crowd’s aid for reporting and photography, since the right person with a mobile phone at the right time can often give a good picture of the news sooner than newsroom staffers.

In “Accurate, Fair & Safe: The Ethics of Social News” at SXSW, two industry pros discussed the benefits of social news gathering — but the benefits don’t come without pitfalls.

Eric Carvin, social media editor at the Associated Press and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, are on a committee within the Online News Association. The Social Newsgathering Ethics group hopes to solve five of the biggest problems associated with social news reporting (that is, newsrooms collaborating with citizen journalists, or borrowing photos from social networks). But before they can solve them, the problems must be identified, said Carvin.

1. Verification and accuracy
With social, everything has the potential to go viral. And if the piece of content isn’t verified by a trusted news organization as being an accurate depiction of reality, it can be severely damaging. That’s why it’s essential that publishers get it right, especially on deadline or when it involves reporting natural disasters and conflict.

“When we see something that might be of value, we’re talking to our experts in that particular format,” Carvin said. Remember the photo of the shark allegedly swimming in Puerto Rico streets post-Hurricane Irene? Extreme photos like this prompt Carvin to turn to his internal Photoshop experts. “At the same time, we are going to our reporters in the field so they can help us make an assessment.” Carvin says his normal protocol is attempting to contact the person who took the photo.

Jenkins turns to technology to affirm or debunk usage of a photo. “Location, in my opinion, is one of the best forms of verification,” she said. Using Geofeedia, Falcon, TinEye, CO Everywhere and even LinkedIn, she can usually peg a source and determine whether or not their photo is trustworthy. But what happens if it can’t be verified?

Use common sense, Jenkins said. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is… If you can’t verify it, then we have to ask the question ‘is this worth [sharing] if it’s wrong?'” she said.

“You need to be willing to be really late on something or never get it at all in the name of accuracy,” said Carvin

2. Contributors’ safety
Carvin said he often thinks about the level of danger his photo contributors and citizen reporters may be putting themselves in to gather information for the AP. “We need to be thinking very carefully about the dangerous situation they may be in,” Carvin said. “What responsibility do we have to people who are gathering news for our benefit?”

Ultimately, in places where there is too much opportunity for injury or even death (war zones and areas of conflict like Syria), Carvin said he doesn’t encourage contributions from locals on the ground. “It’s not always worth it.” Still, it’s not appropriate to ask directly for these photos — only to receive them with proper permission.

3. Rights and legal issues
Publishing photos from social media platforms, whether public or not, still requires a specific request for permission, according to both Carvin and Jenkins. “We don’t want to be in the business of taking other peoples’ work,” Jenkins said.

“We have to use very tight standards, unlike most other news orgs,” said Carvin. “The AP can’t embed Instagram photos without asking permission. It’s a lot of leg work but offers another opportunity for verification. If we distribute a photo, we’re sharing it with potentially thousands of news organizations,” he said, so it’s very important to get it right.

In terms of copyright laws, publishers need to know what the rules are (they may change depending on location) before making a fair use argument. If you’re not convinced a person on Twitter actually is the photographer of a photo you might deem newsworthy (and share-worthy), Carvin advises publications to ask point-blank: “Did you take this photo?” Then, they may say they borrowed it from a friend and posted to social, either through texting or screenshot. But it’s the journalist’s role to figure out as much.

“It’s not their job to know the rules of the game; it’s our job to understand the rules of the game,” he said. Jenkins suggested developing good working relationships with local officials and readers before big news breaks so they’re more likely to share directly with you, by email or otherwise, rather than having to scour the social Web for photos.

4. Social journalists’ well being
Though it’s not discussed much, Carvin said he has heard concerns from colleagues about the well being of photo editors stateside constantly viewing streams of photos from Instagram photographers or freelance photojournalists in dangerous places, like Syria or Iraq.

“There are concerns about virtual PTSD from looking at this stuff all day. I don’t think newsrooms are really set up to deal with this,” he said. But how would this problem be solved potentially? Carvin said that in the AP newsroom, they tried rotating roles to prevent any type of PTSD.

One of Carvin’s best points was this: “Social is just a tool for reporting.” And while it’s vital to determine an ethical standard for social news gathering, journalists should remember that social media shouldn’t always be your only go-to source for finding information quickly. A phone call or step outside may be better (and quicker) than anything you find on the social Web.

For more on the ONA’s efforts in defining an ethics code for social news gathering, click here.

*This post originally appeared on our sister blog, SocialTimes.