First Draft News Supports J-Schools in Teaching Social Newsgathering Skills

    by Claire Wardle
    December 9, 2015
    Photo by velkr0 on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Earlier this semester, I posed the following question to a lecture theater packed with our new intake of journalism students.

    “So, if I take a picture of you all now, and upload it to Instagram, who owns the copyright?”

    "These skills, how to find eyewitnesses and their footage, quickly and ethically, and knowing how to verify whether what they're saying or sharing is true, are critical today."

    I asked for a show of hands: “Is it me, or is it Instagram?”


    The majority of students thought Instagram would own the copyright. This is incorrect. While the Terms of Service for different social networks ensure they can use images uploaded to their site for their own advertising purposes, ultimately the person who captures the image (not the person who uploads it), would own the copyright.  As a result, if a journalist wants to broadcast an image or video uploaded to the social web, or use a video in their own player, they have to seek and receive permission.

    But then it gets even more complicated. How does Fair Use impact this when the footage emerges in the context of a breaking news event? How do Fair Use or Fair Dealing (as it is also called) work in different countries?

    These questions are just one small element of what a journalism student needs to learn today. Over the course of two extended lectures, I covered the following topics:

    • how to set up a 10 column Tweetdeck dashboard to keep track of a breaking news event
    • how to find geo-located Instagram posts
    • how to ensure you know the upload time as date stamps on all social networks differ
    • how to read the EXIF data from an image
    • how to ensure that you’re not looking at a scraped YouTube video
    • how to geo-locate a video using Google Earth
    • how to behave ethically when approaching eyewitnesses online
    • how to find someone who used to work at a company you’re investigating on Linkedin
    • how to use Wolfram Alpha to check weather conditions in another country from a week ago
    • how to find someone’s telephone number if you have the URL of their website
    • how to set up Interest Lists on Facebook
    • much much more.

    Keeping Up

    Disclaimer. This is my passion project. I have been researching and teaching social discovery, verification and the ethical use of eyewitness media for seven years. And even I struggle to keep across everything.

    These skills, how to find eyewitnesses and their footage, quickly and ethically, and knowing how to verify whether what they’re saying or sharing is true, are critical today. The case study of news outlets being hoaxed by Marie Christmas, was just the most recent example of journalists failing to run even the most basic checks on content sourced from the social web.

    Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 17.23.21

    But for many journalism educators, this is real challenge. When most newsrooms don’t possess these skills in-house, so there isn’t an easy supply of adjunct professors to come in and teach these skills. And without a classic textbook, published case studies, available guest lecturers, and no first hand experience of carrying out this work in a newsroom, it’s very hard to teach this subject.

    Standard Curriculum?

    CUNY recently announced a partnership with Storyful so their Social Journalism students could benefit from teaching by Storyful journalists who do this every day. And I know there are examples of j-school educators who are teaching elements of social newsgathering in their classes.

    But, it seems to me there is clearly a need for a standard curriculum, so employers know that when journalism students are graduating they have been properly schooled in all aspects of social discovery, verification and the ethical publication of eyewitness media.

    I’m a member of First Draft, a coalition of nine organizations working with eyewitness media every day. The coalition includes Bellingcat, Google News Lab, Meedan, Reportedly, Storyful, and my own organization, Eyewitness Media Hub. It also includes Fergus Bell, Craig Silverman, and Josh Stearns.

    Together, we hope to put together a suggested curriculum with readings, case studies, and teaching resources. Once we have that, we will be putting out to the educational community to see what we’ve missed or misjudged.


    In the meantime, we’ve just launched a new website called First Draft News. It includes articles, some are how-we-did-it case studies, and some are think pieces reflecting on current practice and suggesting ways in which workflows and standards can be improved.

    Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 17.24.56


    We also have a section on the site where we post resources. At the moment they include 1-2 minute videos, flowcharts, and checklists. We would love feedback about how useful these are for J-School educators and students. We’ve kept them short so that busy journalists are more likely to click, but if there’s an appetite for longer, more detailed pieces, we can work on them as well.

    There are some wonderful resources on this subject. The European Journalism Centre’s Verification Handbook is one of the best examples, but Amnesty International has also developed a very useful toolbox called the Citizen Evidence Lab, and France 24’s Les Observateurs has created an online guide for its audience to teach them about verification. We include all of these on the site as well.


    None of the tools required for social newsgathering cost money. None of the techniques required for verifying social content are difficult. And while some might argue that the ethical use of eyewitness media is no different to journalism ethics that have stood the test of time, knowing how to ‘door knock’ on Twitter does required a different type of sensitivity and judgement.

    Ultimately, these skills are going to become increasingly necessary. With smartphone sales continuing to increase worldwide and the costs of data plans decreasing, the number of photos and videos from news events will keep growing.

    Simultaneously, technology is becoming easier to play with. Manipulating a photo or editing a video are no longer the skills of a professional. The result is more content that has been deliberately tampered with.  And as the Marie Christmas hoax reminds us, people want to test the media.

    Last week I was at an event with Eliot Higgins who launched the open source investigation site Bellingcat. He presented a number of case studies where he used information readily available online to show that the Russian Ministry of Defense was systematically lying. When he came off stage I asked him who else was doing this kind of verification on this information. “Not wanting to be arrogant, but no-one else that I know of.”

    The fact that we don’t have teams of journalism students working on these types of stories on an ongoing basis is a huge waste of resource, and a significant missed teaching opportunity. Students love practicing on ‘live’ cases, and it would allow them to practice their skills in a safe environment. And it’s simply a fact that any journalism student graduating with these types of advanced social discovery and verification skills would be snapped up by newsrooms.

    So please, take a look at the site. Email a link to your students and colleagues and let’s try and work together to come up with a standard curriculum and shared resources to make this ‘stuff’ easier to teach.

    Claire Wardle is the Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She is also co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, a member of the First Draft Coalition.  She has spent the previous seven years undertaking research, training and consulting on social discovery, verification and the ethical use of eyewitness media. She worked previously for Storyful and UNHCR. She holds a PhD from the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Tagged: citizen journalism eyewitness eyewitness news first draft news firstdraftnews verification

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