‘What’s the evidence’? Identifying ‘facts’ on social media for news stories

Dan Lee will be running the masterclass, ‘User-generated content and social media storytelling’ on 23 February at the NCTJ’s offices. He will teach delegates how to find the best, most accurate information online for their stories, and ‘what to keep and what to bin’. Dan explains here why it’s so important to find great sources and facts.  Click here to learn more and sign up.

You get Twitter, Facebook and Instagram alerts simultaneously. Which one do you check first?

Alternative facts, fake news, Trump in the White House, Whitehall and the EU. As you try to work out what daily user-generated content and social media noise to believe, what are your thoughts? Do you have time to have any? Has the increasing pressure to create clickbait killed journalism? Is it killing you?

Try not to be overwhelmed. There are currently bound to be more questions than answers. The titanic (or should that be Titanic?) information flow helps make this the most confusing, unpredictable era since the Second World War, according to experts. But, then again, we’ve all had enough of experts, said Michael Gove. Didn’t he?

How can you believe experts anymore? Whatever it is, from the local dog show to the test launch of a Trident missile, there’s sure to be an explosion of views from the experts, each with their own versions of the facts. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: ‘Do I believe?’

What’s your answer? No, you most certainly don’t believe. How could you, with all those points of view? Pick them up and publish and let the users decide. After all, the users probably created most of the stories in the first place. User-generated content is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Let’s hope not. Because then what’s the point of editing, what’s the point of professionalism, what’s the point of you as a journalist?

This is where the journalist should roll up her trousers, plunge into the data pool and get the shoals of stories into her net. It’s a net that needs holes small enough to catch the big fish and big enough to free the small, undernourished specimens to mature or die from lack of substance. Uncorroborated information, sources without credentials, and rumours without a public interest need to be avoided.

But asking yourself if you ‘believe’ is asking the wrong question. You should be asking yourself ‘What’s the evidence?’ Journalism is precisely about not believing. As a journalist, cross referencing sources and checking online biography details are just two of the numerous ways of working out what to keep and what to bin. There are even some useful websites.

Restricting yourself to the evidence and credible sources should stem the flow of the so-called expert so that users have time for the expert. Sources and experts are not all the same quality. The views of David Irving, the Holocaust denier who writes about history, do not have the same credibility or weight as the views of historian Deborah Lipstadt. Just read the court judgment from the 1996 libel case she won against him. Or you can now even see Denial, the film of the trial. It’s proof, if you needed any, that purveyors of fact need to handle it with care.   

In 2004 there were the fake pictures of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi, which cost the Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, his job. In the 1980s, there was the Hitler Diaries hoax, which cost German and UK publications millions, and in 1924, the Daily Mail published the phony communist-conspiracy Zinoviev letter, which might have cost that year’s general election. Journalism has never been simple.