Chasing the truth: Stephanie Burnett on Storyful’s success

How do you know if a viral video posted online is legitimate? Stephanie Burnett, duty editor at Storyful’s Australian bureau, knows all the tricks.

Ms Burnett shared her advice and experience with Macleay College journalism students on Wednesday.

Storyful is a “digital age” news agency, which focuses on discovering, validating, and verifying social media content. In a time of increasing citizen journalism, Storyful responds to the huge amount of material being published on social media, presented as original and factual but often fake or stolen from other sources.

Not only does Storyful verify content for hard news stories, it also examines and assesses “viral videos”, such as the fake Snowboarder Girl Chased by Bear video.

Storyful’s international media clients, hungry for useful content, include the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, Buzzfeed and Al Jazeera. Clients have access to the agency’s news wire, where verified material is provided for use and publication by news organisations.

When verifying social media content, Storyful pays attention to three things – the source (uploader), the location, and the date.

It’s important to find the earliest source of the video and contact the uploader. That’s important because “scrapers” often download other people’s videos and republish them, claiming to be the author and owner.

“If you’re ever in doubt (about the uploader’s credibility), ask them to send the original video so you can view the video’s metadata,” Ms Burnett said.

When checking sources, Storyful’s staff question if the uploader’s account “looks real” and cross-check with multiple social media sites, like Facebook and LinkedIn, to confirm if an uploader if genuine.

“Sometimes, when you’re under such a tough deadline, it’s easy to just send requests and ask for the footage without verifying it, but trust your gut instincts: there are liars out there and often information gets lost in translation,” Ms Burnett said.

She emphasised the importance of approaching uploaders with sensitivity, especially about hard news stories, as they may have witnessed traumatic events. Calling or privately messaging was the best way to approach the uploader in a respective and empathetic manner.

“A big issue now in social journalism is vicarious trauma … We at Storyful have a woman from Syria and she covers the Syrian war every day while watching her home getting bombed. But it’s okay to say, I need a break from this. You need to be prepared to get help if you need it.”

Storyful uses various web tools while verifying social media content. Google Translate helps to verify sources published in other languages, while a simple reverse image search can determine if an image has been used before.

Storyful determines a source’s location by examining geo-tagging and may use Google Earth to determine if a location had been correctly identified. It also confirms dates through social media, even checking if the weather conditions depicted match the official weather reports for the location.

Over the course of the US election this week, Storyful focused on checking tweets and social media posts. To do this, they monitored candidates’ profiles, paid attention to hashtags and created Twitter lists. With demand for information high, the agency chose to identify the USA’s hotspots for protests and election parties, paying attention to the most prominent geo-locations. That allowed it to effectively verify sources and share them for use by clients. – Jessica Staveley

Photo from Stephanie Burnett’s website.

About Jessica Staveley 22 Articles
20-year-old journalism student interested in film, women's rights, animals, politics, and music.