How breaking news works now, and why Storyful wants to help

By now, most of us have gotten used to the idea that news no longer comes exclusively from one or two mainstream sources such as a newspaper or TV channel — in many cases, we see it first on Twitter or Facebook or through some other form of social media, and the source is often someone directly involved in the event, whether it’s an earthquake or a shooting. But how do we know whether these reports are genuine? For both news consumers and media outlets of all kinds, making sense of that growing flood of real-time information is a critical goal, but the tools with which to do so are still not readily available.

That’s why Storyful, a service that partners with media companies to aggregate and verify news from social networks, says it has decided to open up its formerly private Twitter account to help crowdsource the distribution and verification of breaking news reports.

Before he started the company in 2010, Storyful’s founder Mark Little was a foreign correspondent for a number of outlets such as Ireland’s Raidió Teilifís Éireann — much like Burt Herman, a former Associated Press reporter who started a company with a somewhat similar name: Storify. But while Storify is designed as a tool that anyone can use to pull together or “curate” a social-media stream from sources like Twitter and Flickr, the idea behind Storyful was to build a professional service staffed by journalists who could track breaking news reports through social networks and help media companies verify them. The company has a staff of 33 editors working in dozens of countries, and works with a number of outlets such as the New York Times and Reuters.

Collaboration is becoming a key journalistic skill

As part of its service, Storyful had a private Twitter account called StoryfulPro, which collected and distributed breaking news reports from both its own team and the various sources they monitored within their countries or their fields of expertise — including both professional journalists and citizen reporters, or what the company likes to call “networked journalists.” The primary audience for the account was over 1,000 professional journalists that Storyful had worked with before. On Tuesday, Little announced that the service had decided to make the Pro account public, allowing anyone to use or contribute to the process.

In a blog post, the Storyful founder said he decided to do this because he believes crowdsourcing is the best way to determine the truth of a breaking news report as quickly as possible. As he puts it:

“Storyful believes the key skill for journalists in a social age is collaboration. There really is no alternative to working with others in the Golden Hour. If a newsroom decides to go it alone, the chance you will be consistently first is nonexistent. The chance that you will often be wrong is 100 percent.”

As we’ve seen in a number of recent cases — including the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. and the death by suicide of director Tony Scott — the pressure on media outlets of all kinds to break news first can result in a profusion of incorrect reports, which then get redistributed through Twitter and other social networks faster than any correction or clarification can match. Little’s phrase “the golden hour” refers to the first hour after a news event occurs, which Storyful believes is the most crucial period for fact-checking, and he says one of the most important contributions that can be made is when someone — either a professional journalist or reliable source — kills a false report before it can spread. Says Little:

“Breaking news now emerges in a ‘Golden Hour’, when skilled intervention is most valuable, when a celebrity death starts to trend on Twitter or an explosive video goes viral on YouTube. In this Golden Hour, the best journalists are often the ones who STOP a story, not start it.”

Crowdsourced news verification is almost always better

Storyful isn’t the only company or media-related startup that is trying to bring some kind of professional rigor to the process of real-time news verification: the NBC project Breaking News, which started as a Twitter account, also has a growing team that curates and distributes real-time news it has verified, and Sulia develops Twitter lists of credible sources (both professional and amateur) around various topics and breaking news events. Some media outlets also have their own internal teams that do this, such as the BBC’s “user-generated content desk,” which verifies reports from social media for use by BBC reporters.

I’ve argued before that one of the most compelling examples of crowdsourced news verification is the way that Andy Carvin of National Public Radio used his Twitter account as a real-time newswire — or what he prefers to call a public newsroom — to filter and verify reports coming out of Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, something other media outlets should emulate. And in a recent post, I also tried to make the case that this kind of verification or fact-checking is almost always better when it is done in public (although many readers seem to disagree with me on that).

One of the reasons for that is the amount of knowledge that can exist in what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” Little says in his post that the company’s golden rule is that there is always someone closer to the story — and in many cases that person is not a traditional journalist or mainstream news source:

“Often, the closest person is still the wire reporter or networked journalist. But rarely do we rank the key source on the basis of authority and power. Authority has been replaced by authenticity as the currency of social journalism.”

Little says the closed nature of the Storyful Pro account always troubled him, because of his belief that crowdsourcing is almost always a better route to take for fact-checking the news (something he has written about in the past for the Nieman Foundation) and that’s why the decision was made to open it up. I’m glad the company decided to do so as well, because the more services and networks and media outlets there are trying to do this — whether it’s Storyful or Sulia or Breaking News or even Wikipedia — the better off we will all be as news consumers.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Petteri Sulonen