Citizen journalism is a divisive subject. For many online users it is the fastest source of news from someone in the midst of the action. However, for the media it can prove to be a quagmire of fact checking headaches.

The authenticity of user-generated content (UGC) came into question as Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc this past fall. Social media helped users share their accounts in real time as the storm tore up the east coast. As quickly as updates were posted, some were verified and others debunked as hoaxes. (If you think fabricated photos are a new phenomenon, check out this article on The First Hoax Photograph Ever Shot.) Yet when news broke of recent school shootings, it was Twitter that helped keep much of the public accurately informed.

In our tightly connected world of information sharing, how can we ensure that each of us does not fall victim to false reporting?

A Model

The answer is simple yet can prove challenging for even seasoned fact checkers. In a Poynter.org article, Regret the Error founder Craig Silverman spoke with Associated Press editor Fergus Bell, the recently appointed Social Media and UGC Editor, International at the AP charged with confirming all UGC prior to dissemination by the news organization.

As you can imagine, the AP has a process for sourcing and verifying information. According to Bell the process is fairly straightforward hinging on confirming both the source and the content directly. (Having experienced this process firsthand on many occasions for photos, video, and written content, I can vouch for the AP’s tenacity for source confirmation prior to issuing content that I generated.)

The AP provides a standard, described in detail by Bell, for verifying UGC that I wish more organizations and online users would follow (if you generate news I urge you to read Silverman’s article and take notes). However, during this interview Bell touches upon a more intriguing by-product of his verification process: user adoption.

Activism

Accurate news is only as good as its reach. You never feel quite as impotent as having news that never makes it further than your outbox. Activists are in the business of spreading information and the successful users have found partners in the press. But how can the verification process be followed as riots and battles erupt, online connections break down, and content is anonymously posted for fear of reprisals?

The answer lies within a shared responsibility between the users and the media. Activists are now taking it upon themselves to assist in the verification process. As Bell told Silverman:

“We’ve definitely seen an evolution from Egypt to Syria. In Syria the activists may have a Facebook page [for their content] and they will have ways to communicate with them; in Egypt we didn’t see that. It was raw material being pumped out as quickly as possible, and it was really difficult to get in touch with them.”

As activists engage with journalists Bell stressed the need to uphold the integrity of each report by strictly adhering to the established process.

“Even if something is incredibly compelling and it doesn’t pass one of our steps, then it doesn’t go out. That’s how we stop from being wrong, which is tough sometimes, especially when it’s something that’s really great. But we just don’t put it out, because the [verification] system has grown organically and it hasn’t failed us yet, and so we trust it.”

Organic Adoption

The AP process is organically changing the content it receives. As users meet the needs of journalists they begin to strengthen the integrity of their own pieces. Perhaps Bell has finally found a way for citizen journalists to adopt his industry’s Code of Ethics.