“Don’t make assumptions” – Interview: Malachy Browne, Storyful

Image: Storyful and Zero-G
Image: Storyful and Zero-G
Image: Storyful and Zero-G

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In the last few years, access to publishing information has spread from a select few to, well, anyone with a smartphone.

As the amount of content shared online becomes ever-more unmanageable to keep track of, journalists looking to make sense of it all and ensure that their audience receives reliable and accurate information have found life difficult.

Given that journalists have the power to influence the opinions of the public, they have a greater burden of responsibility than others to ensure that the information they share is valid.

From minor harmless online hoaxes to false information spread online during times of crisis, examples of misinformation going viral – and making headlines – abound.

Verifying online content is what Dublin-based social media news agency Storyful is all about.

We talked to their news editor, Malachy Browne, who is responsible for planning and overseeing the delivery of Storyful’s daily news agenda.

So, tell us a little bit about Storyful.

“We are a social media news agency that is all about separating news from noise on social media. We operate as a subscription-based service for newsrooms, with over 45 news and content clients – among them The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sky News, the BBC World Service, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, Google, YouTube, Amnesty International…. (for a more detailed list see here). We also provide training and consultancy to non-clients on social media discovery and verification.”

The Storyful dashboard
The Storyful dashboard

What exactly do you do day-to-day?

“We discover content online on a range of topics from hard world news, human rights and humanitarian issues to sport and viral videos. Just like any news desk at a newspaper or a broadcaster, we choose the stories that we think will resonate with our audience: that is the big, important stories of the day. We are always on the lookout for something new and social media is great in providing that story from left-field.”

“We also provide a verification service for newsrooms – they have access to our dashboard with all the information and can choose to have 24/7 access to our team of journalists all over the world.”

How do you do this?

“We use lists extensively to draw stories from social media. We have got 700 pre-populated lists – Twitter lists, other social media interest lists and bespoke Storyful lists – with sources we know to be reputable for cities, states and countries. Our technology monitors give us a heads-up on events happening around the world.”

“So when we get a tip from our wires about something that is happening, we try to find content that relates to that story to help visualise it and bring together a package. Then we must verify the original source of the content, its date and location, as well as establish the rights to it.”

“Essentially we are an insurance policy for publishers and broadcasters to use this information safely and with the appropriate credits. Nothing will end up on our system if there are grave doubts about it unless it is in an informational sense, for example to provide an alert or a warning.”

How does social media verification differ from traditional verification within journalism? 

“Basically, you need to ask yourself the same questions: who, what, where, why and when. You have to be satisfied that what is being displayed is what it says it is. It is still fact-finding and checking.”

“So the starting point is the same; the main difference is that it is a technical type of work that requires computer proficiency. People need to be conversant with a range of tools – and be very quick in using those tools.”

“As well as that, it is important to be very good with data because there is such an abundance of information that you need to be able quickly to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Could you give us an example of this in action? 

“We have got some great tools that give us streams of content and we can geolocate content and very quickly get in touch with people. Instagram has been an explosion of shared content in the last year – video in particular – and a lot of it is geolocated.

“So during the Kenya shopping mall massacre, there was a guy from Kuwait on the roof of the mall posting in Arabic – you would never have found him through English language search terms. Using Google Translate we were asking him questions via Instagram and he was replying to us while he was on the roof and taking photographs below.”

Are there any tools that you use to verify information online accessible to the public?

“We released one of the tools that we built in-house, a Chrome extension called Storyful Multisearch. It’s a very basic discovery tool – however, it does remove a lot of work for people by helping them search social media content online.”

“We also have a Google+ project called ‘Open Newsroom’, which is a closed community, but everybody can view the posts. We are careful about whom we add as we want to control the quality of our contributors but it’s an example of crowdsourced verification at work really.”

What advice would you give journalists when it comes to verifying content online?

“Don’t make assumptions. Avoid anything that is based on assumption or sources that you cannot trust. And read our blog for case studies.”

Visit the Storyful blog for some interesting case studies on social media verification and take a look at their presentation on searching social media from the September 2013 news:rewired conference.

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