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Six questions journalists should ask when evaluating a rumor

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Six questions journalists should ask when evaluating a rumor

Craig Silverman | February 24, 2015

The following is excerpted from the report “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation," written by Craig Silverman, a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. You can download the full report here

Here are six questions journalists can ask when evaluating a rumor.

1. What is the source/evidence?

Who is the original source saying/sharing this, and what do they have to back it up? This is the most essential element. One of the easiest ways to avoid becoming part of a chain of dubious propagation is to take a few minutes and search/read closely to see where the claim or rumor originated. Don’t point to a rumor unless you have located the original source and evidence and evaluated it.

Journalists who have expertise verifying user-generated content and investigating the origins of viral stories often express shock and dismay at how easily their colleagues miss red flags or don’t do a few basic tests on a piece of content. To learn more about how to do that, I suggest the free Verification Handbook. (Disclosure: I edited it.)

2. What is the history?

Who are the people and entities involved in the rumor and its propagation? What does that tell you about its veracity and the players involved?

3. Who else is saying this?

Are credible outlets or people saying the same thing? Are they questioning it?

4. What need does it fill?

Rumors fill a need and perform a function. Why might this rumor be emerging now from that place or group of people? Bear in mind that rumors emerge in situations characterized by uncertainty, a lack of consistent information, or as a result of emotions like fear, disgust, and sadness, or hopes and wishes.

5. What is the motivation?

Consider the motives of the propagator(s). Is this self-interested, altruistic, or malicious propagation? Who benefits from this rumor? Are they involved in its creation or propagation?

6. How do we add value?

In some cases, you can best add value by waiting and choosing not to give breath to a claim. Take time and see if you can be the person to turn up a key piece of evidence for or against it. If others are already propagating a rumor, the opportunity for capturing pointing traffic diminishes. Take an approach to move the story forward and you’re more likely to be rewarded with traffic.

Craig Silverman is the founder of Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker, and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. Craig is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where he serves as adjunct faculty. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center, and helped launch OpenFile, a Canadian local news startup. 

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via cicciopizzettaro

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