5 tips for verifying citizen footage that every journalist should know

5 tips for verifying citizen footage that every journalist should know

Which of you fell for the Golden Eagle Snatches Kid viral video? Of course, not you. You’re a professional skeptic. You know that when something appears too crazy to be true, it likely is.

But what about the Syrian Hero Boy video, revealed a hoax after it was viewed millions of times and shared on several outlets?

Or the clip of Venezuelan police officers torturing a detainee, which would be shocking if it hadn’t already circulated previously described as showing Mexican, and before that, Colombian officers?  

Sniffing out hoaxes is not always so easy. But as user-generated content plays a greater role in news coverage, we need to do a better job verifying what it is we’re seeing, and giving our audience the context they need to understand it.

You may not be able to say with 100 percent certainty where and when the footage was filmed, but you can at least avoid misinforming your audience or putting a citizen at risk.

The basic steps below will help journalists avoid major blunders when working with citizen footage. 

1. Google reverse image search. This is the first-and the easiest-step you can take to determine if footage has been scraped from a previous event. Upload the image to an image search, and Google will produce the image’s online history. For a video, copy the thumbnail image, or screengrabs from the video, and upload that into the search.

This how I was able to help a human rights researcher avoid being duped. The researcher sent me a video he had received from a source purporting to be a cell phone video from South Sudan. I took several screengrabs of the video, uploaded them to a reverse image search and immediately found that the video had circulated online for several years, in some places described as showing witch burnings in Kenya, in others, described as showing the massacre of Muslims in Myanmar. Clearly, it was not a new video of a current situation that this person’s source wanted him to believe.

2. YouTube Data Viewer. If you are looking into a YouTube video, Amnesty International has produced a tool to undertake the previous step for you. Copy the video url into the YouTube Data Viewer and the site will give you the video’s thumbnail images and a link to a reverse image search for each one.

3. Investigate the source. Learning about the uploader of the video is a good way to gauge his/her credibility. Yes, I’m talking cyber-stalking. If it’s a YouTube video you’re looking at, what other videos has the uploader distributed? Are they from the same place? Do they have the same production quality, or does it look like they were taken by different people/cameras? Are there other online or social media accounts linked to that user that can help identify where this person is based and what sort of media and information he/she posts?

These can all provide clues about whether this is a person who is at the scene or whether it’s an aggregator who pulls footage from other sources- and thus, may have no idea whether the footage is authentic. And don’t forget, you can always try reaching out to the source. Simply asking if and how they took the footage or where they found it can answer a lot of questions, and often lead to other interesting aspects of the story that weren’t caught on film.

4. Cite the source. A 2014 study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that only 16 percent of user-generated content in the broadcast media the researchers analyzed was credited. Acknowledging the source of footage is not only a matter of ethical or legal obligations to content producers, but also a matter of transparency for your audience. If what they are viewing wasn’t filmed by the staff of the outlet they trust, they deserve to know who is behind it. Just as you wouldn’t quote a person in an article without describing who they are and their relation to the story, that context is just as important for visual information used in a report. Knowing that the footage was from a participant in the story, or someone with a political agenda, in fact, might be part of the story itself.

That said, there are many occasions when the filmer or uploader video will want to remain anonymous due to security concerns. If that may be the case, take steps to ensure that your communication with the source or sharing of the footage would not expose the source’s identity or lead to increased risk. 

5. Blur faces to protect the privacy of vulnerable people. The public distribution of videos can have a very serious impact on the people filmed- risks that they did not necessarily consent to. Before sharing the video, ask yourself whether the people in it were aware they were being filmed, and were in a position to give their consent to the recording.

If not, is it possible the distribution of this video could put them at risk? For instance, does the footage identify activists in a place where that could lead to their arrest? Does it expose a victim of sexual abuse that could cause further trauma? If you’re unsure, blur the faces of vulnerable people before sharing the video. Or, don’t share it at all, and paint a picture of what it depicts for your audience.

For more on verifying eyewitness videos, we’ve compiled a number of resources from organizations like Storyful, Amnesty International, Ushahidi, and the European Journalism Center on our website.  

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and the Program Manager for the Human Rights Channel at WITNESS.

Photo: Verify via Shutterstock 

Learn how to get more press, set up alerts that are "better than Google Alerts" and make reports on the impact of articles.

Request a Muck Rack Demo