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Creating a Verification Workflow

Craig Silverman (@craigsilverman) is an entrepreneurial journalist and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. He is currently a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and recently launched Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center and is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is now part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where Craig serves as adjunct faculty. He previously served as director of content for Spundge and helped launch OpenFile, an online local news startup that delivered community-driven reporting in six Canadian cities. Craig is also the former managing editor of PBS MediaShift and has been a columnist for The Globe And Mail, Toronto Star, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is the author of two award-winning non-fiction books, Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and Mafiaboy: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man.

The Associated Press puts a priority on being first and right. It’s part of the culture of the news service.

That dual priority was one of the things that Fergus Bell had to keep in mind when creating AP’s workflow for verifying user-generated video.

Bell is the AP’s Social Media & UGC Editor, International. He leads efforts to gather and verify UGC video from around the world. Part of that role involves ensuring that AP’s existing verification standards are applied to content that doesn’t come from its own journalists.

Bell had to create a verification workflow that supported rapid, reliable verification — while also upholding the standards and culture of the AP.

The goals and values of an organization are key to creating a workflow, according to Bell. As are existing processes and resources.

“The most essential thing to consider when working out workflows for verification is to come up with a process that is clear, easily understood in times of pressure and fits the editorial standards of your organization,” Bell said. “That way, when something breaks and there is a rush to source content you know that you can trust your process if something isn’t right without feeling the pressure from the competition. Part of that process is the communication line and knowing who, in a variety of scenarios, will be the person that gives the final sign off.”

Bell’s advice highlights four key elements of a verification workflow:

  • Standards and values.
  • Tools and people.
  • Communication flows/platforms.
  • Approval process.

At the core of the AP’s process is a “two track” approach, Bell said. “When content is discovered we take the two track approach, verifying and seeking permission from the original source AND separately verifying the content.”

This was visualized in an image shared at a recent Online News association conference:

“It’s a kind of two-line process where they are each done independently of the other,” Bell previously said. “… [W]hen I say we confirm a source, that means that we find the original source and we get permission to use it. By content it means that we understand what we’re seeing. So I may have verified the source, but I want to confirm myself that what they are telling me is true.”

As part of its process, AP makes use of the organization’s global resources. Bell and others collaborate to bring as much knowledge and expertise to bear when a piece of content needs to be verified.

“At the AP, the content verification is done by the AP staffer closest to the story in terms of location or expertise — whatever is most relevant,” he said. “Once that verification is completed we then submit it to a wider group to check that there are no other issues.”

Bell continued:

For example the reason we never ran the purported video of a helicopter going down in Ukraine was because I saw it as part of the screening process and flagged up that I had seen it before somewhere. It wasn’t too hard to work out the original was from Syria and the video we were looking at had been edited. Other reasons for this screening could be standards issues, or just generally checking it fits in with our other formats.

AP’s social media team possesses deep knowledge of verification tools and procedures. They are a central point of approval before any content is distributed by the organization.

Similarly, the BBC set up a User-Generated Content Hub, which is a team of specialists who are adept at sourcing and verifying UGC. They are the in-house experts. But in neither case does that absolve other journalists from caring about verification, or from taking part in the process.

Larger news organizations, such as the AP and BBC, have the resources to create dedicated, specialized teams. For most other organizations, that’s not an option. They must therefore put an emphasis on creating a workflow that is easy enough for everyone to follow, and that is supported by an approvals process that ensures appropriate sign off before publication.

Bell said that in the end what’s most important is creating a process that people have confidence in, and that they can easily follow. Otherwise, they will take shortcuts or ignore it. “Even if something is incredibly compelling and it doesn’t pass one of our steps, then it doesn’t go out,” Bell said. “That’s how we stop from being wrong, which is tough sometimes, especially when it’s something that’s really great. But we just don’t put it out, because the [verification] system has grown organically and it hasn’t failed us yet, and so we trust it.”



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