Craig Silverman, writer of Regret the Error on Poynter.org, recently released a free, online Verification Handbook. The handbook deals with ways for journalists to verify information online–videos, photos and social media–as well as timeless traditional techniques. The handbook is currently available as a Kindle version and PDF and is expected to also be released in print.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AJR: What is the Verification Handbook?
Silverman: The Verification Handbook is a combination of very useful tips, tricks, techniques and approaches for [verified information] mixed with case studies of real work examples that basically give any journalist a really great foundation and guide to practicing verification in the digital age. So it’s got the practical stuff but it also has the kind of verification fundamentals that will never go out of style.
AJR: Where did you get the idea?
Silverman: About a year ago… I realized I was spending more time writing about verification and thinking about verification, and I really thought that there’s kind of a knowledge and skills gap in newsrooms. Every journalist will know that accuracy is tremendously important but in terms of actually having the knowhow of verification, particularly when it comes to user generated content—images, video—things that sometimes have a technical dimension, I think there really is a lack of knowledge and knowhow in newsrooms.
AJR: How do you expect journalists—or anyone—to use it?
Silverman: For people who aren’t inclined to read the whole thing, or who have a specific chapter (in mind), it’s great for them to go to that chapter on verifying images or video and read about working with crowd-sourced information.
Open it up, get that information, and check out the case study [that’s] available for you.
The other thing is that the last chapter of the book actually outlines step-by-step processes for all the kinds of verification. So if somebody is in a really urgent situation, and they’re trying to think of something to do, they’re not going to have time to read a full chapter. They can go to that final chapter and see what steps we recommend for that procedure.
AJR: Why an emphasis on emergency breaking news? News organizations issue corrections frequently for faulty information. Why narrow in on this specific setting?
Silverman: There’s a lot of chaos, there’s a lot of rumor, people are panicked. They’re stressed. [It can] really impact the way people exchange and communicate information. And so it leads to misinformation. It leads to rumor. And if you can do verification well in these scenarios where there’s a lot [of] very rapidly changing elements, and where it can all be very confusing, you’re really going to be that much better in a scenario where there isn’t that pressure.
AJR: How could a journalist use verification tactics during a breaking news situation—for example the Boston bombings—via social media?
Silverman: There’s a tremendous amount of information that’s really contained in just one tweet. The stuff you can see and read, and then there’s the metadata that’s attached to it. And so when it comes to verifying, you’re really looking at two core things. You’re looking at the source, so who is this person? Who is this account? Are they credible? Are they in fact the originator of this information or content? You’re going to verify the source of it, and you’re going to look at the content itself — if it’s a piece of information that’s being reported elsewhere, attributed to anything. Will officials tell me who might have knowledge of this particular incident? And if it’s an image or video, well then you look at the image and the video, and there’s many clues in there as well. It’s interesting because people [might] see a tweet … as something that stands on its own, but a tweet has a tremendous amount of information. It can actually become a really fun mystery to solve, a case to investigate. If you get that approach to it, then it’s not a chore, it’s actually an opportunity and its a good approach to verification.
AJR: What are some of the timeless processes for verifying information?
Silverman: One of the timeless elements of verification is checking the source and the content. That has been an essential piece of it for a very long time. Another one is, of course, being skeptical. … The pose for verification is a skeptical pose. You don’t take anything for granted; you don’t assume anything. And that is at the core of it, and that attitude has nothing to do with technology or social media. And one of the chapters in the book, I got Steve Buttry [an editor for Digital First Media] to write about these fundamentals, and he really hits on one key question, and that is: “How do you know that?” It’s also a question that you ask yourself, and you can catch yourself making assumptions, and if you ask yourself that question, “how do you know that,” you’ll often catch yourself before making a mistake or error.