The day after the Orlando shootings, I received an email from a former student admitting that it was her first day at a major metropolitan newspaper and she’d been charged with finding images and videos from inside the Pulse nightclub. She wrote:
“The closest I have gotten so far is figuring out the lat/long of the club address and plugging it into Tweetdeck along with a random search term (“omg”), and then manually scrolling back to find tweets from around the time of the shooting. Is there a quicker, more accurate way to do this?”
Many of our students don’t come to J-School to learn social newsgathering and verification, but the first job most of our students take post-graduation will be on a desk where they will be asked to find people, images or videos posted on social media. Not only do they need to find these things, they need to be able to authenticate them before the newsroom does anything with them.
The problem is that many faculty members teaching “Reporting 101” in J-Schools around the country never lived through a shift with Tweetdeck columns pinging with notifications, never had to geo-locate an Instagram image using Google street view, and never had to run a domain name registration search on who.is.
Death by PowerPoint
For social newsgathering and verification training, my experience is that these skills are often delivered during the odd hour here or there, almost always by guest lecturers. I am often one of these guest lecturers, and I, like others, teach using PowerPoints. We take case studies shared by Storyful on their blog, or from the First Draft News site (disclosure: I’m one of the founding members).
These case studies are the ones that worked, where the journalist was able to track down uploaders and speak to them on the phone. They are the examples when people could be identified on Spokeo because they have a unique name, or the video they uploaded could be matched with Google Streetview because there was a street sign was visible in the background. Alternatively, the case studies are so complicated (see this in-depth example showing how Storyful identified Dylann Roof, or this recent post from Bellingcat showing evidence of Russian incendiary bombs being used against civilians in Duma) that they’re great for a presentation. The students leave very impressed, but not very confident that they would know where to start.
And the truth is that there are still very small numbers of journalists in newsrooms who have these skills, but it is exactly this reason why J-Schools have even more of a responsibility to train them. Newsrooms are hiring because of these skills. Editors know they’re lacking and want to ensure new recruits can already undertake this type of reporting.
Training these types of practical skills is hard. Teaching the inverted pyramid, how to write a strong nut graf or even how to create a social video, can be done practically. Students get to repeat writing or video assignments throughout their time in J-School. They practice their craft and increasingly what they produce has to be seen publicly. They are creating content for class websites, or to be seen on their own Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat accounts. We ask them to do Facebook Live or Periscope streams from the street. They learn pretty quickly not to move the camera too fast as friends and family point out in the comments that it’s too blurry.
When a breaking news event happens, it’s impossible to pull students out of class to get them to start discovering and verifying information. We don’t want them to reach out to eyewitnesses — to add to the stream of journalist requests they’re receiving — so we just show them examples of bad requests via screengrabs and say, “don’t do it like that.”
A new approach
On election day, we’re trying something new. First Draft is partnering with ProPublica, Google News Lab, WNYC, USA Today Network and Univision on a project called Electionland. As part of the project, we trained 14 J-School professors, bringing them to a bootcamp in rural Pennsylvania in late September. They have gone back and trained their students so that on election day we will have an army of 550 students who have been trained in social discovery and verification.
Each student has responsibility for a different region in each state and will be monitoring social feeds looking for evidence of voter suppression. When they find tweets, Instagram posts, YouTube videos or Facebook messages, the students will be undertaking verification checks before sending on the content and an accompanying report to the Nerve Center at CUNY J-School. There, professional journalists will feed those tips back out to a network of over 300 journalists at different local newsrooms in all 50 states. This won’t be a practice scenario for the students. This will be real.
I really hope election day passes without any long lines at the ballot box. I hope America’s well-oiled democratic processes gently whir throughout the day. I doubt that will happen, but even if it does, this project will have achieved something remarkable. We will have 550 more J-school students ready to go out on the market with high-level, proven social discovery and verification skills, that they can add to their toolbox of other reporting techniques.
If we pull this off, we will have demonstrated that 14 J-Schools can collaborate on one project in real-time (thank you Slack), and who knows what we can do next? National or even international reporting projects could become a real possibility.
Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law School, currently has almost 50 students from across the University working on videos of human rights abuses provided by Amnesty International. (You can read about this pilot Human Rights Investigations Lab here.) The students are collaborating on verifying these real-life cases and feeding their results back to investigators there. They are learning through doing, working on critically important pieces of evidence. These students come from 14 different majors and probably won’t go into journalism, but after doing these types of long form investigations, I would hire them in a heart beat.
You can’t teach journalism via PowerPoint. Students can practice writing tight ledes, compelling headlines, producing engaging videos. We already know that you teach reporting by kicking the students out on the street and getting them to talk to someone on day one of classes. With social newsgathering and verification, we need to create practical real-world scenarios for students to practice these new skills. Once Electionland has finished, the infrastructure is in place. What should we do next?
Claire Wardle is the Research Director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is also the co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, a founding member of the First Draft Coalition, an initiative committed to providing content creators and publishers with research and resources. Wardle holds a PhD in Communications from the University of Pennsylvania. She also sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Information and Entertainment. She’s @cward1e on Twitter.