Tag Archives: verification

Hurricane Sandy: how does the media serve the public interest?

This tweet from Daniel Bentley deserves a post all on its own:


While some news organisations take down paywalls and others help sort hoax images from the genuine article, what role should ‘common carriers’ like Instagram play? Any at all?

A case study in online journalism part 2: verification, SEO and collaboration (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

corporate Olympic torchbearers image

Having outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I want to touch on how verification and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role.

Verification: who’s who

Data in this story not only provided leads which needed verifying, but also helped verify leads from outside the data.

In one example, an anonymous tip-off suggested that both children of one particular executive were carrying the Olympic torch on different legs of the relay. A quick check against his name in the data suggested this was so: two girls with the same unusual surname were indeed carrying the torch. Neither mentioned the company or their father. But how could we confirm it?

The answer involved checking planning applications, Google Streetview, and a number of other sources, including newsletters from the private school that they both attended which identified the father.

In another example, I noticed that one torchbearer had mentioned running alongside two employees of Aggreko, who were paying for their torches. I searched for other employees, and found a cake shop which had created a celebratory cake for three of them. Having seen how some corporate sponsors used their places, I went on a hunch and looked up the board of directors, searching in the data first for the CEO Rupert Soames. His name turned up – with no nomination story. A search for other directors found that more than half the executive board were carrying torches – which turned out to be our story. The final step: a call to the company to get a reaction and confirmation.

The more that we knew about how torch relay places had been used, the easier it was to verify other torchbearers. As a pattern emerged of many coming from the telecomms industry, that helped focus the search – but we had to be aware that having suspicions ‘confirmed’ didn’t mean that the name itself was confirmed – it was simply that you were more likely to hit a match that you could verify.

Scepticism was important: at various times names seemed to match with individuals but you had to ask ‘Would that person not use his title? Why would he be nominated? Would he be that age now?’

Images helped – sometimes people used the same image that had been used elsewhere (you could match this with Google Images ‘match image’ feature, then refine the search). At other times you could match with public photos of the person as they carried the torch.

This post on identifying mystery torchbearers gives more detail.

Passive aggressive newsgathering

Alerts proved key to the investigation. Early on I signed up for daily alerts on any mention of the Olympic torch. 95% of stories were formulaic ‘local town/school/hero excited about torch’ reports, but occasionally key details would emerge in other pieces – particularly those from news organisations overseas.

Google Alerts for Olympic torch

It was from these that I learned how many places exactly Dow, Omega, Visa and others had, and how many were nominated. It was how I learned about torchbearers who were not even listed on the official site, about the ‘criteria’ that were supposed to be adhered to by some organisations, about public announcements of places which suggested a change from previous numbers, and more besides.

As I came across anything that looked interesting, I bookmarked and tagged it. Some would come in useful immediately, but most would only come in useful later when I came to write up the full story. Essentially, they were pieces of a jigsaw I was yet to put together.  (For example, this report mentioned that 2,500 employees were nominated within Dow for just 10 places. How must those employees feel when they find the company’s VP of Olympic operations took up one of the few places? Likewise, he fit a broader pattern of sponsorship managers carrying the torch)

I also subscribed to any mention of the torch relay in Parliament, and any mention in FOI requests.

SEO – making yourself findable

One of the things I always emphasise to my students is the importance of publishing early and often on a subject to maximise the opportunities for others in the field to find out – and get in touch. This story was no exception to this. From the earliest stages through to the last week of the relay, users stumbled across the site as they looked for information on the relay – and passed on their concerns and leads.

It was particularly important with a big public event like the Olympic torch relay, which generated a lot of interest among local people. In the first week of the investigation one photographer stumbled across the site because he was searching for the name of one of the torchbearers we had identified as coming from adidas. He passed on his photographs – but more importantly, made me aware that there may be photographs of other executives who had already carried the torch.

That led to the strongest image of the investigation – two executives exchanging a ‘torch kiss’ (shown at the top of this post) – which was in turn picked up by The Daily Mail.

Other leads kept coming. The tip-off about the executive’s daughters mentioned above; someone mentioning two more Aggreko directors – one of which had never been published on the official site, and the other had been listed and then removed. Questions about a Polish torchbearer who was not listed on the official site or, indeed, anywhere on the web other than the BBC’s torch relay liveblog. Challenges to one story we linkblogged, which led to further background that helped flesh out the processes behind the nominations given to universities.

When we published the ‘mystery torchbearers’ with The Guardian some got in touch to tell us who they were. In one case, that contact led to an interview which closed the book: Geoff Holt, the first quadriplegic to sail single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean.


I could have done this story the old-fashioned way: kept it to myself, done all the digging alone, and published one big story at the end.

It wouldn’t have been half as good. It wouldn’t have had the impact, it wouldn’t have had the range, and it would have missed key ingredients.

Collaboration was at the heart of this process. As soon as I started to unearth the adidas torchbearers I got in touch with The Guardian’s James Ball. His report the week after added reactions from some of the companies involved, and other torchbearers we’d simultaneously spotted. But James also noticed that one of Coca Cola’s torchbearers was a woman “who among other roles sits on a committee of the US’s Food and Drug Administration”.

It was collaborating with contacts in Staffordshire which helped point me to the ‘torch kiss’ image. They in turn followed up the story behind it (a credit for Help Me Investigate was taken out of the piece – it seems old habits die hard), and The Daily Mail followed up on that to get some further reaction and response (and no, they didn’t credit the Stoke Sentinel either). In Bournemouth and Sussex local journalists took up the baton (sorry), and the Times Higher did their angle.

We passed on leads to Ventnor Blog, whose users helped dig into a curious torchbearer running through the area. And we published a list of torchbearers missing stories in The Guardian, where users helped identify them.

Collaborating with an international mailing list for investigative journalists, I generated datasets of local torchbearers in Hungary, Italy, India, the Middle East, Germany, and Romania. German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel got in touch and helped trace some of the Germans.

And of course, within the Help Me Investigate network people were identifying mystery torchbearers, getting responses from sponsors, visualising data, and chasing interviews. One contributor in particular – Carol Miers – came on board halfway through and contributed some of the key elements of the final longform report – in particular the interview that opens the book, which I talk about in the final part of this series.

A case study in online journalism part 2: verification, SEO and collaboration (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

corporate Olympic torchbearers image

Having outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I want to touch on how verification and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role.

Verification: who’s who

Data in this story not only provided leads which needed verifying, but also helped verify leads from outside the data. Continue reading

FAQ: Online journalism ethics, accuracy, transparency and objectivity

Answers to another set of questions around ethics and online journalism, posed by a UK student, and reproduced here as part of the FAQ series:

Do you believe online journalism presents new ethical dilemmas and should have standards of its own?

Yes, I think any changing situation – whether technological or cultural – presents new ethical dilemmas.

But should ‘online journalism’ have a separate code? I don’t see how it can. Where would you draw the line when most journalists work online? Ethical standards are relatively platform-agnostic, but journalists do have to revisit those when they’re working in new environments. Continue reading

Has News International really registered TheSunOnSunday.com?

A number of news outlets – including the BBC, Guardian and Channel 4 News – mentioned yesterday in their coverage of the closure of the News Of The World that TheSunOnSunday.com had been registered just two days ago. (It was also mentioned by Hugh Grant on last night’s Question Time.)

It’s a convenient piece of information for a conspiracy theory – but a little bit of digging suggests it’s unlikely to have been registered by News International as part of some grand plan.

When I tweeted the claim yesterday two people immediately pointed out key bits of contextual information from the WHOIS records:

Firstly, it is unlikely that News International would use 123-reg to register a domain name. @bigdaddymerk noted, News International “use http://bit.ly/cWSHia for their .coms and have their own IPS tag for .co.uk”

Murray Dick added that it would “be odd for big corporation to withhold info on whois record”

And – not that this is a big issue given recent events – according to @bigdaddymerk “in the case of the .co.uk registering as a UK individual would be whois abuse.” (UPDATE: The specific abuse is detailed here)

You might argue that the above might be explained by News International covering their tracks, but if were covering their tracks it’s unlikely they’d do it like this.

UPDATE: From Malc. in the comments: more digging has been done at Loutish – note the comments as well.

UPDATE 2: It seems there are other web addresses registered by other companies, too. This post points out, however, potential trademark issues (none has been registered) and conflict with Trinity Mirror.

UPDATE 3: Those other addresses are now registered to News International – but not the .com domains.

UPDATE 4: I think News Corp missed an opportunity with FoxNewsUK.com

The timeline

Anyway, digging further into the timeline of the ‘Sunday Sun’ casts further doubt on any conspiracy connected to News Of The World.

For example, it was reported over a week ago that The Sun was moving to 7-day production (thanks to Roo Reynolds, again on Twitter).

Between that announcement and the registration of TheSunOnSunday.com, anyone with a habit of domain squatting could have grabbed the domain in the hope that it would become valuable in the future.

Either way, even if it has been registered by someone at News International, the timings just don’t add up to a News Of The World-related conspiracy. Certainly it will have been a factor in deciding to close the NOTW, and plans to launch a Sun On Sunday are now likely to be accelerated (I’m amazed that they hadn’t registered the domains before, at least as a defensive move) – but it’s pretty clear that those plans pre-date the closure of NOTW.

So, as I wrote yesterday, a ‘Sunday Sun’ is not a rebranding of News Of The World. They have just closed the country’s biggest selling newspaper – its most profitable tabloid – and made 200 people redundant.

Note: this post was udpated to correct an error: the NOTW is not the highest selling English language newspaper in the world (that is probably The Times of India). Thanks to Paul Carvill in the comments for highlighting.

A new tool for online verification: Google’s ‘Search by Image’

Google have launched a ‘Search by Image’ service which allows you to find images by uploading, dragging over, or pasting the URL of an existing image.

The service should be particularly useful to journalists seeking to verify or debunk images they’re not sure about.

(For examples where it may have been useful, look no further than this week’s Gay Syrian Blogger story, as well as the ‘dead’ Osama Bin Laden images that so many news outlets fell for)/

TinEye, a website and Firefox plugin, does the same thing – but it will be interesting to see if Google’s service is more or less powerful (let me know how you get on with it) Find it hereVideo here.

‘Dead’ Osama Bin Laden photos – why have so many news sites published them?

Daily Mail leads with fake dead Bin Laden photo

Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror today – among with several others in the US (including the New York Post, which credits the image to AP) and other countries – published an image purporting to be that of the dead Osama Bin Laden.

It clearly wasn’t.

Any journalist with a drop of cynicism would have questioned the source of the images – even if they did appear on Pakistan television.

It certainly passed the ‘Too good to be true’ test.

Instead, it was users of Reddit and Twitter who first highlighted the dodgy provenance of the image, and the image it was probably based on. Knight News and MSNBC’s Photo blog‘s followed soon after.

It took me all of 10 seconds to verify that it is a fake – by using TinEye to find other instances of the image, I found this example from last April.

But instead of owning up that their image was a fake, both The Daily Mail and Mirror appear to have simply removed the image from their site, leaving that image to circulate amongst their users. Ego, pure and simple.

PS: More on verifying images and other hoax material here.