Citizen video is becoming a powerful new reporting tool. But faked footage threatens to break the trust that’s so critical to newsrooms and audiences. Storyful reporter Della Kilroy demystifies the verification process, sharing important lessons for reporters and human rights researchers alike.

Editor’s note: The Human Rights Channel‘s Citizen Video Blog Series discusses citizen video reporting with leaders in the field. What better place to start than with the first question any reporter asks when presented with new information: Is it true? Discerning the authenticity of citizen video is the bread and butter of Storyful, a news organization that verifies citizen video for news outlets around the world and for the Human Rights Channel. We’ve invited Storyful’s Della Killroy to explain the process.

By Della Kilroy, Storyful Journalist

Even three years ago, many news organizations were nervous about broadcasting YouTube content because of concerns about whether it could be trusted, worries that viewers would be turned off by shaky cell phone footage, and confusion about whether they had permission to use such content. But user generated content has now become a staple of television broadcasts, as audiences seek more authentic footage, and journalists become more sophisticated about verifying content and seek permission for use.

At Storyful, each and every citizen video is subjected to a verification process:

1) Locate the Original
To find the first instance of a video upload, we use detailed analytics to identify keywords, and advanced search tools provided by Twitter and YouTube to investigate the first mentions on social media.  Searching by upload date and time will give us the first instance of the video in question, and thereby the original source.

2) Contact & Research the Source
Tracking down the original video gets us one step closer to the source. From there, we need to investigate the individual or group that filmed it. Citizen journalists upload and share their videos through social media, so we search for their online profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and personal websites. We contact them to verify where and when their footage was filmed and other information relevant to the story.

We then verify the reliability of the source by investigating some key questions, including:

  • Where is this account registered and, judging by their online history, where has the uploader been based?
  • What do their online profiles – Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or website – say about them? These can indicate where the person is based, where they have traveled, and if they are affiliated to organizations that might be deemed unreliable or would indicate a specific bias or agenda.
  • The uploader’s location is one barometer for their reliability in covering a certain situation or story in a particular region. 
Do they write in slang or dialect that is identifiable in the video’s narration? 
Do their online social circles indicate they are close to this story and location?
  • Does the uploader ‘scrape’ videos from news organizations and other YouTube accounts, or do they upload solely their own content? 
Are the videos on this account of a consistent quality? 
Are descriptions consistent? Are they dated? If we are familiar with this account, has their content been reliable in the past?

3) Find Corroborating Information
Now we examine the content itself, asking questions including:

  • Can we geo-locate this footage? Are there landmarks or topographical details that allow us to verify the location via Google Maps or Wikimapia?
  • Do streetscapes tally with geo-located photos on Panoramio or Google Streetview? For example, this video documents anti-government protests that took place in several Iraqi cities on February 15. The uploader told us that the footage featured the Razak Mosque in Samarra, so we worked to verify this independently:
Credit: Iraqi Spring

We used Google Maps to verify that the satellite image of the Razak Mosque (below) tallied with the footage of the blue mosque in the video.

Credit: Google Maps
  • Do weather conditions tally with reports of that day? 
Do shadows tally with the time of day the event reportedly happened?
  • Do vehicle registration plates, signs, or storefronts indicate the country or state?
 If the video contains dialogue, do the accents or dialects fit the circumstances it purports to represent?
 For questions specific to a particular region, our twitter community may know more than we do, and this is where crowdsourcing from sources familiar with the region can helpful.
  • Finally, does the video tally with events being reported on Twitter, news wires, and local reports? What does the community we engage with say about this video?

Syria has produced hundreds of graphic examples of human rights violations, with news organizations regularly broadcasting amateur footage from places journalists cannot access. For example, this video is said to show a search for bodies, on January 15 2013, after a deadly airstrike on the Haidariya neighborhood of Aleppo a day earlier. We used news reports to verify that the strike took place on January 14. Local activists reported the death toll was 13 including three women and two children. We verified the uploader as a reliable source regularly posting similar videos from the region. We also compared the footage to others from the same time and location to corroborate what it purports to show.

Della Kilroy is a Dublin-based journalist for Storyful. Storyful’s team uses both online tools and old-fashioned reporting to determine the authenticity of citizen videos.

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