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Reporting with No One on the Ground: Content Curation and Vetting Amateur Social Media Sources

The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a piece last week lamenting the notion that, in countries and combat situations where journalists are targets, such as Syria, coverage is reduced for those of us on the outside to a stream of amateur videos lacking context posted on social media sites such as YouTube.

To bring this point home, Carr provides some of the late journalist Marie Colvin”s final, powerful work, and contrasts it with a clip of amateur footage depicting a situation involving gunfire in the streets, posted to YouTube by Russia Today (embedded below -caution: graphic).

“The video is visceral and heart-rending,” notes Carr, “but absent any context. Where are we? Who is doing the shooting? And what stakes are in play?”

In the clip’s description, Russia Today writes that the footage “purportedly shows the aftermath of clashes between police and presumed demonstrators in the southern Syrian village of Izraa on Friday.”

“Purportedly?” “Presumed?” It’s hard to miss Carr’s point.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently addressed the difficulties facing reporters who want to cover the events in Syria, but are unable to enter the country’s borders. Journalists have been forced to cover events remotely, armed only with cell phones and social media tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. These methods have left news organizations facing two issues: they must slog through mountains and mountains of footage and reports from inside Syria, and they then face the difficult task of verifying the context and facts behind the content they’ve chosen.

Sometimes authenticity simply can’t be verified, and news organizations are forced to provide disclaimers:

  • “The location, timing, and provenance could not be independently verified” - The New York Times
  • “This and other videos could not be independently verified” – GlobalPost.com

CJR cites a number of occasions in which respected media outlets (CNN, the Assocated Press, Reuters and Al Jazeera, to name a few) used inaccurate footage in the past, and were forced to remove videos and post retractions.

Carr’s piece leaves the reader feeling that, without feet-on-the-ground reporting, the state of information from places like Syria will remain devoid of context: “More and more of the information about continuing conflicts has moved to the Web, but it falls to the viewer to piece together what is actually under way. ”

This is where Carr is wrong. It doesn’t fall to the viewer to pull together context. It continues to fall to the journalist (or anyone who wants to play the part of a journalist), and it is up to the journalist to develop and utilize the proper tools and methods to provide accurate, informative story lines.

Take this Wiki News article from February 25th. This is a beautiful example of content curation – creating a coherent, accurate story line by pulling from mountains of pre-existing material.

In 2012, effective content curation is more important than having a sea of reporters on the scene. Simply put, content curation is the future of journalism.

This isn’t to say that it’s not important to have talented journalists out in the streets when news is breaking. The more context the better, and we’ll always do well to have great storytellers there to convey to us the mood, the smells and tastes of things, when history is being made. But when that’s just not possible, reporters shouldn’t be afraid to utilize what’s already out there. On top of that, reporters just might tell stories more effectively with a team of content curators pulling together powerful material from social networks and verifying sources for them.

Yes, verification methods are still evolving, and it often feels like a Sisyphean task to dive through the seemingly endless material out there. But if news organizations try devoting more man-hours to these tasks, they may be surprised by the results.

Author: Dave Kempa

Journalist. Writer. Robot god. Kempa Dimês View Profile

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