When information appears on social media, it's tempting for news organizations to race to report it first.
Resist that impulse. You'll have a more complete story -- and one you won't later regret -- if you follow a few steps from digital journalists Mandy Jenkins and Craig Silverman.
Jenkins, social news editor for the Huffington Post, and Silverman, editorial director of OpenFile.ca and editor and author of Regret the Error, shared their advice during their presentation, "B.S. Detection for Journalists," at the recent 2011 Online News Association Conference in Boston.
Here are their tips for verifying information found on social media:
Step 1: Check the person's credibility:
-- On Twitter, check when the account was created. Be suspicious of brand-new accounts.
-- How frequent are the updates? Is this a regularly used account?
-- Do they have a photo? If they haven't bothered to add one to the account, that might be a sign that it's a fake.
-- Do they have friends or followers? Do they follow others? Do they have any random followers, - namely watch out for "random, porn spam bots?"
-- Are there interactions between this account and others? No interaction may be the sign of a fake account.
-- Check the account's Klout score to assess the level of interaction.
-- Google the Twitter account's name, or handle, along with "spam," "scam," "spammer" etc. to see if others have complained about this account.
-- See if you can find other accounts online with the info you have. Search the username or use Identify in a Firefox browser, or HoverMe in Chrome.
Step 2: Follow up on the tip
-- Ask for a phone number and call the person.
-- Ask if they witnessed what they reported first-hand, or if not, how they heard about it.
-- Ask what they witnessed, how they saw it and when
-- Ask who else may have the same information
Step 3: Check the credibility of the info
-- Check earlier tweets or updates. Did they mention something about why they were on the scene? Is there anything leading up to their news tip that makes sense or puts things in context? Do they indicate plans, location, etc.?
-- Do any follow up tweets or updates make sense in context?
-- Does it read authentically? Misspellings, bad grammar, typos can also be a sign of a real person.
-- If there is an image attached, check to see if it has geolocation data or exif. Read more about verifying images here.
Step 4: Corroborate the story
-- Check the scanner or police sources to verify
-- Back it up on a Twitter search to see if other social accounts are reporting the same thing
-- Use the "Andy Carvin method:" Ask followers to help verify the information
Step 5: Evaluate your options. Ask yourself:
-- How urgent is this information?
-- How important is the tip to the overall story? Is there a story without it?
-- Is it worth the risk if it is wrong?
The slides from Jenkins' and Silverman's complete presentation, "B.S. Detection for Journalists," can be viewed here.