Last week I gave a lot of interviews about journalist arrests at Occupy protests around the US, and almost without fail every interviewer asked some version of this question: How are you verifying the information you are putting on your list?
There is a healthy skepticism about the veracity of social media content in general, and this skepticism is amplified in times of breaking news and heated conflict. I knew that if I was going to try to bear witness to these arrests and create a resource for people concerned about freedom of the press, everything I included had to be verified.
I also wanted to verify as much information as possible to make sure I could track down the journalist, ensure they had been released and that they were safe and uninjured. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to quibble about who is a journalist, and who isn’t. My goal was to account for anyone who was clearly committing acts of journalism when they were arrested. However, I also recognize that to hold police and city officials accountable for these arrests, those being arrested had to identify as journalists publicly – either with some form of credentials or verbally.
Here’s a rough outline of my process:
At any given point I was following 4-5 different search terms and hashtags using Tweetdeck. When I was on my mobile I used Twitter’s iPhone app (not ideal for following a number of searches). Similarly, I had a series of search terms I mixed and matched to search Google News and blogs for references to journalist arrests.
When I saw news of an arrest, or possible arrest, there was a few kinds of info I immediately started digging for:
What Happened: Was anyone else tweeting about this? Was the journalist hurt? What else do we know about this person? What went on leading up to the arrest? Where did this happen? Could I find other people on the ground to confirm and tell me what they saw?
Who: I looked for a Twitter account for the journalist (especially to find out if they tweeted as the arrest happened), a blog, a bio at a news organization or other public accounts at Facebook, Google+ etc.
Confirmation: Once I had a sense for who the person was I tried to reach out to someone else at their news organization. When possible I tried to confirm that yes indeed they had a reporter on the ground who had been arrested.
Tracking the Story: After I had ID’d the person and gotten confirmation of their arrest I added them to my list and began looking for more info on the arrest. Sometimes this took minutes, other times it took hours or days. I searched for other articles mentioning the arrest, YouTube videos, etc… and added them into the Storify as context. When possible I tried to get in touch with the journalist once they were released.
Fixing Errors: This weekend one of the reporters who was on my list, someone who I had verified was indeed a journalist and was arrested, wrote to tell me he was not covering Occupy Wall Street but was engaged in civil disobedience at the time of his arrest. I immediately noted that on the Storify post and updated the number of arrests. There was one other journalist arrested with him who was also participating and not covering the protests, I have not added him to the list at this point.
Sometimes the process was easier because I found out about the arrest through an article or a statement from a news organization. However, especially on November 14 when ten journalists were arrested in NYC, I relied on some version of the process outlined above.
That day, I was fortunate to have Ben Doernberg working “alongside” me in Storify helping sort through the incoming information. Ben and I found each other pretty early in the morning on Tuesday and we swapped links to our respective Storify lists. He was capturing and curating evidence of press suppression and abuse in New York City during the Zuccotti raid and eviction. The differences between our two Storify posts (His micro: capturing a specific event at a specific location in detail. Mine macro: tracking a chain of events across the country over time) shows the flexibility of that tool.
I found that as the weeks have worn on, the verification process has become incredibly important to me. I was never trained as a journalist, although I have been working in media and journalism for many years now. In the end, I think a lot of my motivation for such rigorous fact checking comes from a simple sense of responsibility.
As my list became more and more of a resource for other journalists who were trying to report on the arrests, and organizations who were speaking out against these arrests, I felt deeply responsible to them, their readers and their communities. I still do.
This weekend Jay Rosen wrote a blog post in which he recounted his advice to people who want to become journalists. His advice is:
“Get yourself into a ‘journalistic situation.’ A journalistic situation is when a live community is depending on you for regular reports about some unfolding thing that clearly matters to them. If you really want to be a journalist the best experience you can have is to be depended on by people who need you as their eyes and ears, their interviewer, their man or woman in the field.”
That people have depended on my reporting this past week is perhaps the best complement I could receive, and it drives me to make sure I am doing the best job I possibly can.
*Update: See more details in comments below about my process. Also note that the post above has been edited to fix a spelling mistake and add more links.