When young Arabs took to the streets of North Africa in 2011 to fight for democracy armed with Internet-connected mobile phones, few, if any, were there to shake the foundations of traditional news reporting.

But their YouTube videos and other social media content have become a staple of news coverage from the region. Even the biggest news organizations now regularly air videos shot by Libyans or Syrians who have no journalism training. Without these videos, certain news events and personal stories within them would fade out of public sight. 

In Syria, non-journalists are responsible for a vast amount of news video coverage gleaned from the ongoing conflict. Rebel groups and their supporters have fought an information war with immense success, posting social media updates on airstrikes and battles in almost each town and village across the country, effectively bypassing the Syrian government’s media blackout.

This footage poses challenges for news networks and professional journalists. How can one be sure that the video really shows what it purports to depict?

A Cautious Approach To User-Generated Content

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National Public Radio’s senior strategist, Andy Carvin, is among the top brass in social media reporting. With more than 80,000 Twitter followers, he has the attention of many journalists, activists and politicians online. He has been credited with tweeting the so-called Arab Spring. Recently Carvin published a book, “Distant Witness,” telling the story of the Arab revolutionaries who embraced new technology to organize and document their struggle for democracy, forcing their way into newsrooms worldwide.

Having watched the Arab Spring unfold, Carvin is knowledgeable about the reputable voices on social media — especially those in and around Syria.

“I follow several dozen Syria-related YouTube channels, from individual citizen journalists to large-scale distribution networks like Ugarit News and SNN,” he said.

“Unfortunately the video uploads faster than I can keep up with, so I try to focus on video from certain places that are currently hotspots, like Aleppo or Homs.”

On Twitter, Carvin follows “a sizable list” of people covering news related to Syria, some of whom he says “developed pretty good reputations for quality content.“

 When news comes across from a source other than those already on his list, Carvin always works to verify it.

 “I’ll sometimes ask my Twitter followers, or check in with Syrian contacts directly,” he said.

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“I try to stick to videos that have some context to them – accents that can be picked out, landmarks in the background, weather, etc. I often shy away from videos that have little or no context to them.” Carvin says he believes news networks are becoming better at recognizing the benefits and pitfalls of social media.

“I think people have become a lot more thoughtful about scrutinizing videos, and the pendulum has swung a few times. Originally, it seemed no news organizations wanted to touch UGC (user-generated content). Then the Arab Spring comes around and they start airing it left and right. Now I think we’re somewhere in the middle — using UGC more selectively.”

Nevertheless, there are limits to how much a video can tell about a situation. As journalism defines its role and processes in relation to user-generated content and “we develop stronger networks of who we trust more than others, hopefully we’re getting better at verification,” Carvin added.

i-b36589df9b8545348b7598d84f7dc24c-ugc02.jpgScreenshot of the user-generated footage aggregated on Ugarit News.

The downfalls to relying solely on social journalism for news are apparent. Carvin says he believes that it can only really work in tandem with professional news reporting, stressing that “there’s still a huge need for people being able to report stories like Syria in person.”

“That in-person connection can turn a good story into a great story,” he said. “So I generally think social journalism and offline journalism complement each other, but can’t necessarily replace the other.”

Newsrooms and social media: Verifying Videos

When it comes to establishing the trustworthiness of activist videos — like those from Syria — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But here are five things to look out for.

1. The first thing to do when verifying any video is to find the original source, hopefully the person who shot it. Scrutinizing the YouTube channel the video was published on can provide clues as to whether the clip is a scrape or the original. If other videos in the YouTube account were shot in other parts of the country, then it’s likely the uploader is an aggregator and copied the video from elsewhere. It may also be an uploader who is “repackaging” old videos, claiming that they show recent events. By searching YouTube with keywords describing the video, usually in Arabic, it’s often possible to trace the earliest version. Online tools such as Tineye and Google Image Search also help check if a video is old or new.

2. Look for landmarks and other distinguishing features in the footage. Google Maps’ satellite imagery makes it possible to check if landmarks seen in a video tally with those at the purported location.

3. Look for Local Coordination Committees (LCC) set up by Syrian citizen journalists. These have been particularly active on Facebook. The LCCs cover different areas and cities and provide updates on battles and ground conditions in their particular region, making them invaluable for checking if an incident shown in a video was actually recorded to have happened there. LCCs also cherry-pick videos of particular events in their area, posting them online.

4. To find out what is being said about the video, take the unique identity code in the url of the video and search for it on Twitter. Often there is a burst in online exposure by people in Syria when a video is new and hasn’t been seen before. The first person who shared it on Twitter may also well be the original owner of the video.

5. Finally, but most importantly, it’s always worth making direct contact with the uploader to ask for more information about the content.

Jenny Hauser is an online journalist for the Dublin-based social media news agency Storyful, reporting breaking international news sourced through social media content and citizen journalists worldwide. She holds a postgraduate degree in international journalism and an undergraduate degree in media arts. Originally from Germany, she grew up in Kuwait before moving to London and later to Ireland. In Ireland, Jenny has been published in local and national newspapers.

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This post originally appeared on the website of the European Journalism Center, an independent, international, non-profit institute dedicated to training journalists and media professionals to the highest standards in journalism.

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