"Breaking news is broken" has, following a string of messy news events, turned into an unfortunate trope about media coverage in the digital age. Misleading images proliferate during natural disasters, false information points to the wrong suspects during shootings and bombings, and everything, it seems, is a hoax. Every time news organizations learn from past mistakes, a new form of deception emerges.
While Twitter and other forms of fast-moving information portals receive much of the blame for this phenomenon, media has always been bad at reporting breaking news. "There is always a lot of chaos; there's always a lot of misinformation," says Craig Silverman, the editor of the Verification Handbook, out this week, told Fast Company. "These are natural occurrences."
For journalists and readers attempting to avoid the "bullshit," as Silverman, the director of content at Spundge, calls it, that's actually good news. Since the medium doesn't matter, cautiously navigating any breaking news situation in the Twittersphere now or using whatever future information dissemination tool, takes the same basic skills, all of which are conveniently outlined in Silverman's ebook. Using case-studies culled from "all-stars" in distinct areas of news gathering, the book offers lessons on how to act more responsibly in the convoluted moments that often follow breaking news events.
"The book has a mix between giving some basic guidance on the fundamentals of verification and what the mindset needs to be for you to look at something and for you to interrogate it and investigate it," Silverman, who also blogs about errors in reporting for the media site Poynter, explained. No matter where the information comes from, the most important rule for journalists, he said, is to verify both the content and the source. "That's a very old-school journalist thing and it never goes out of style."
Once a journalist has that mindset, mastering the craft comes down to knowing which tools to use. The book offers tips and tricks for navigating the current digital media spaces—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on— with chapters on image, video, and user-generated content verification, for example. Each of the case studies illuminates free, fairly easy, and not too time consuming ways to analyze both the piece of information and its source, such as reverse image searches and ways to compare video landscapes with Google maps. The most useful part of the book is chapter 10, which provides a bullet point list of ways to verify different types of media. As new sources emerge, Silverman hopes to update the book with the relevant resources.
It's not the most riveting material, but Silverman and his consortium of experts tried their hardest to make it appealing to journalists. "We do have an article from someone from Buzzfeed U.K. It's not a listicle, but it includes sharks," said Silverman. Also, the online only ebook, soon to be available for Kindle and in print, is free.
But, there are also strategic reasons media companies should train their reporters to brush up on these skills. Not only is it embarrassing to make mistakes, but reliable news organizations will draw more readers in the long term. Or, sometimes the news site that debunks the "bullshit" gets the most pageviews of all. With that attitude, verification can turn from a chore into a game. "The people who are doing it on a daily basis treat it as a mystery or a crime to solve," Silverman noted. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
In an ideal world, news organizations would train their journalists with basic verification skills. Offering it as a free and digital resource, Silverman hopes that his manual will facilitate that process. While he hasn't partnered with any news powerhouses, The European Journalism Center funded the book. Silverman also plans on presenting it at various conferences, including the American Copy Editor's Society this spring.
"There’s no question that the average newsroom does not do a lot of training around verification," lamented Silverman. "The book is definitely a step in getting that to happen, since it is free. But they gotta use it."