How do you decide what to do with reports found on social media? Every situation is different, but the considerations are the same. There are three distinct questions to evaluate:
• How credible is the information?
• How important is it to your audience?
• And how urgent is the situation?
With carefully thought-out answers to these questions, you’ll be in good position to decide how to proceed.
Consider the social history of the source. Has this person been on the network for years, or is this a brand-new account with no profile photo, friends or history? Has the person regularly posted information that was credible? In the rare case that someone deliberately tries to spread false information, it will probably be from a newly created or fictitious account, not from a social profile someone spent years building up.
Ask: Was the source in a position to know what he claims to know? Much social media misinformation comes from sources who are mistaken, not outright liars.
• Determine if he witnessed the event firsthand or is passing along hearsay. Does this person live nearby or know the people involved?
• Consider whether the source made assumptions. For example, did he really see fire or just smoke?
• Think critically about whether the source could have missed something important. Was she driving by (less reliable) or standing at the scene?
Try to pose these questions directly to the source, and if you can’t, analyze whatever context you can find.
Seek official corroboration. Do police, firefighters, traffic cameras or any other official sources of information back up the claim?
Seek social corroboration. Are other social network users posting similar, independent reports from the same location? If a tornado really touched down in a city of 8 million people, for example, there ought to be more than one photo of it. Be sure to look for other primary-source reports, not just retweets or messages based on the account you already have.
Credibility and verification is the most important piece of the decision, but not the only one. In many cases you’ll reach some degree of confidence in the report, but fall short of certainty. You should also consider the nature of the information itself.
Ask yourself these questions:
How important is the information to the news that you’re covering? Is it a fundamental claim (“There was a shooting at the fireworks tonight”) or an incidental fact (There must have been 5,000 people at the fireworks tonight”)?
How important is the story to your general newsgathering mission? Is the overall story something important enough to consider taking a risk? Or is it a minor story with little public impact or interest?
What are the risks and rewards of publishing this information? If it turns out to be wrong, what damage would your report have caused? If it’s true and you withhold it, how underinformed would your readers be?
In addition to credibility and importance, you need to be aware of how time-sensitive the situation is. Consider whether the information is urgent, and whether it may become irrelevant if you wait too long to make your decision.
How quickly must you decide what to do? What damage could be caused by waiting to publish this, perhaps until you become more confident in your source’s account? Is there a benefit to waiting? If you are dealing with a report of an alleged ongoing public safety incident, you must consider the value of alerting others to the potential danger as soon as possible.
All of these factors should weigh into your decision. Consider the overall credibility of the source and your confidence in the accuracy of the report. Decide how important the information and the overall news story are to your audience. And weigh whether the information is time-sensitive and requires an immediate decision.
If you decide to publish the information, you should disclose to your audience how you received and vetted the information, and you should note any caveats or conflicting reports. Be transparent about your difficult decision, which will empower the audience to make their own call about whether to trust the information.
This article first appeared on Poynter Online, IJNet's partner and the website of the Poynter Institute, a school serving journalism and democracy for more than 35 years. Poynter offers news and training that fits any schedule, with individual coaching, in-person seminars, online courses, Webinars and more. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet's six other languages with permission from Poynter.