Verification, user generated content, and why it matters

Last week, First Draft News ran a workshop at the Guardian on verification and user-generated content. There’s video of the sessions coming to the First Draft News site soon, including a speech I gave – of which the text is below.

Hello everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I’m Mary Hamilton, the Guardian’s executive editor for audience.

Part of my role is to oversee the ways we treat people who participate in our journalism, and the unspoken contracts between journalists, contributors, uploaders and readers.

As I’m sure everyone in this room and watching online understands, this is an area that is going through constant change at the moment, driven by social media and its capacity to allow anyone with a phone and a network connection to act as broadcasters.

The growth of the real-time web, especially through Twitter, has enabled every eye-witness to tell the world what they can see – and every reporter to respond in an attempt to gain exclusive knowledge.

It has also enabled the growth of hoaxing, and the ease in which an image or a video can be divorced from its context has made it trivial for mistakes to thrive and appear truthful.

The Guardian has both a duty and a commitment to report the truth, to treat our journalists with respect regardless of whether they are professional reporters, and to act ethically in handling contributions from readers and user-generated content.

We know that many of our readers want to help us do our jobs well.

During the Paris attacks, when a significant volume of incorrect or inaccurate information was circulating through social media, readers came to us to ask us what was truthful – what was known.

They also came to us to tell us what they knew was false – to assist our writers and live-bloggers by sharing their own detective work.

In a breaking news situation, many people want to know what they can do, and how they can help.

For some, that means sharing unverified images that confirm their own beliefs.

For others, that means turning to us to ask the questions they can’t answer themselves, or offering us their expertise so that we can weave it into something larger and more meaningful.

This is crucial work: we are still the gatekeepers of truth for our readers, and when we say something is real, is confirmed, is verified, that act of journalism remains utterly vital.

In a world in which truth is often slippery, being accurate and authoritative is more important than ever.

But in order to do that work, our newsroom and our news processes have to respond to the changes we see on the internet every day.

We have to be able to receive, investigate and verify not just tweets and Facebook posts, but also chat posts and live streamed video.

We have to understand how to verify posts on services that strip user information from uploads, or that encourage anonymity.

And we need all these things in place before a breaking news situation requires them, if we are going to respond with speed and integrity when a big story breaks.

When it does, the Guardian is among the best in the world at involving and engaging our readers and eyewitnesses in our coverage.

We’re used to using uploaded reports in our live blogs, verifying UGC in real time, and doing the hard graft of sifting through eyewitness reports to find the information that moves a story along.

We have to understand the impact, too, of being the people who possess these skills, and we have to take care of reporters and editors who see traumatic imagery on a regular basis.

In this fast-changing environment, we are seeing a rise in violent images shared broadly, and how we handle, check and verify those has huge impact on both our journalism and our reporters.

It’s important, again, that we get those processes right ahead of time, before news breaks, so that we can support our journalists and treat eyewitnesses ethically.

User-generated content doesn’t just help us out with breaking news.

UGC can help us dig deeply into investigations, unearthing new stories.

When we build crowdsourcing and audience-focussed story generation into our newsgathering processes, we can gain insight, add colour and break stories that wouldn’t be possible without involving our readers.

We’ve seen that with the Counted, where our audience is helping us to build the most complete picture of US police killings – we have reported several that would have gone unrecorded without our audience’s help.

We’ve seen it with the NHS, where our readers’ stories – personal and professional – have helped us flesh out and humanise our coverage.

And we’ve seen it with the Millennials project, where readers physically came to the Guardian to share their thoughts, concerns and needs, to inform our commissioning.

Each of those projects has involved quite different tools and approaches.

We have created live events, curated online communities on our own and other sites, and used our UGC platform GuardianWitness alongside other tools to gather reader stories and encourage them to share knowledge.

Many of the tools we use today did not exist, or existed in very different forms, two years ago.

We have to prepare for a future in which the tools we use change at a dramatic rate, and develop processes that take advantage of new technology while also retaining our core mission: to report broadly, deeply and accurately on the stories that matter most.

So we are happy today to host First Draft News for this verification and UGC workshop, and keen to see their work and hear their views on these issues.

With us today we have Eliza Mackintosh, former Washington Post journalist and now UK partnerships coordinator at Storyful in London who will be talking about verifying breaking news, using examples such as the recent Paris attacks and finding Dylann Roof; Malachy Browne, Europe editor at who traced the manufacture and shipping of bomb components from the European Union to the United Arab Emirates and Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, who has been working for the last five years verifying and debunking events in Syria, such as Russia’s claim that it didn’t bomb a mosque.

Thank you to all of the speakers for bringing their expertise to the Guardian, and thanks to all of you for attending.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

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