Using social media as a source

Published 17.04.2016 22:08

Journalists' use of photos in newspapers and online has come up numerous times in the Reader's Corner. Sometimes it is due to lack of signatures; sometimes we focused on more specific types of photographs like those portraying the aftermath of brutal terrorist attacks -- photos that aim to capture the most vulnerable moments of the loved ones of the deceased. We criticized them regardless of the platform, and Daily Sabah got its fair share of these criticisms. But when it comes to photos in general, we always insist that photos are part of the content and not some complimentary aesthetic feature that goes along with the text. Sometimes a single photo can make an impact that thousands of news articles have failed to make, such as the photo of Aylin Kurdi, a refugee toddler who washed up on the shores of Turkey after drowning while trying to cross the Aegean Sea.

In previous articles, the methods of obtaining said photographs did not come up much, though. So, this week we look at the Visual Verification Guide for Photos prepared by Alastair Reid for First Draft News. Before continuing, however, I would like to mention that "First Draft News is a daily destination site for journalists who source and report stories from social media," according to their own statement. In other words, this is a site that uses social media as a primary source; thus, we can assume the guide also covers similar ground. And that is perfectly fine. After all, in recent years, we have seen that the trend of using social media along with image searches has become a preferred option in traditional media, especially when it comes to their websites. Therefore, the questions asked in the guidelines are actually more relevant than you realize, especially if you thought that most of the media only relies on photographs sent by their own photographers and affiliates.

The first question the guideline asks is if you are looking at the original image from the original source. In this case, the guidelines encourage a reverse image search to determine the origin of the photo. Unless we were unable to find any other versions of the photo, and basic checks provide positive results, we should refrain from using it. Of course, the ideal situation is when the photo is sent to us directly by a source we can quote and reach later on.

The second questions the origin of the photo from a different perspective and asks who originally captured it. In this case, anonymous sources or untraceable social media accounts are considered inappropriate when it comes to publishing and are only acceptable when the newsroom is able to communicate with the person who took it. The ideal would be comparing the exchangeable image file (EXIF) data of the photo with the statement of the photographer. And for our readers who are unfamiliar with photography, EXIF data is the background information digitally embedded within photographs. They contain information such as the date and time the photo was taken or what type of lens or camera was used to capture the photo.

The third question is for when you know where the photo was captured. In this case, the ideal would be once again communicating with the source, but if he or she is unavailable, we should use visual clues such as traffic signs, important buildings or other indicators and compare it with apps such as Google Maps.

The fourth question is similar to the second and asks for the date and time the photo was captured. In this case, EXIF data comes into play once again as it allows us to crosscheck the time of the photo with the time of the event. Anonymous photos with no EXIF data should not be published, according to the guideline.

Lastly, we have the trickiest question of all, as it concerns why the photo was captured. While knowing the exact date and location of the photo in question helps our credibility, the motivation of an outside source is always something to be considered very intensely. If we do not know the person who took the photo, we most certainly cannot know his or her motivations. If that is the case, the location and time of the photo mean little, as we will not know whether or not the photographer omitted certain details to present an agenda. This can also be deduced if the social media account where the photo is first discovered was recently opened. Similarly, if the photographer or the uploader belongs to an activist organization, a few flags should be raised, and the motivation should become an even larger issue.

While this article is a more barebones summary of the actual guidelines, it is a good start for the debate. I would also like to thank both Alastair Reid and First Draft News for their guidelines, as its necessity is evident more than ever with more and more media outlets turning to social media as a viable source.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter