How to verify the origin of social media photos

Hurricane Harvey, like other natural disasters before it, has spawned a fresh crop of viral social media hoaxes that are believable enough to take hold. Readers swipe through feeds and their natural inclination is to react or share, not verify.

In times like these, verification is essential. But even experienced journalists can forget this basic discipline, as Katie Couric has demonstrated. The photo she tweeted Sunday is actually from a Houston Chronicle report in April.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 12.17.27 PM
Screengrab of @katiecouric’s alligator tweet

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If you want to avoid becoming the subject of journalistic schadenfreude, take a few minutes every time you come across this sort of thing and verify the images. It does not take much effort at all to verify images you find on social media. Here are two really easy strategies you should be using:

  • Reverse image search: Download a copy of the image. If that option isn’t available, try taking a screenshot. Upload the image to Google Image Search to see if it exists elsewhere on the internet. (This would have uncovered the source of Couric’s image above.)
  • Verify metadata: If you can get the original photo sent to you through a DM or email, save it to your desktop and upload to metadata reader site like Metapicz. Original image files that come directly from a camera or mobile device all store information like the time and date it was taken, what kind of device was used and GPS location data. This data can be stripped from files when they are uploaded to Facebook and also when they have been modified by software like Photoshop.

Also, if you’re not confident in the validity of an image, don’t share it.


Honoring David McHam, a master teacher

David McHam/Baylor Alumni Association photo
Baylor Alumni Association photo

After more than 50 years of teaching, David McHam is retiring from the University of Houston at the end of this semester. I leapt at the opportunity to speak at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication scholarship reception to honor him and present a plaque recognizing his contributions to UH and to the journalism world. My remarks are below. 

Dr. McHam!

Yes I know, “Dr.” McHam is not accurate. I do like to call him that, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But McHam, see, he’s always the first to correct me.

McHam does not hold a doctorate and he sure as hell isn’t an M.D. Though, now that I think about it, he probably has saved a few lives — students whose careers almost flatlined before they made it to their junior year.

We all know David, don’t we?  You probably know a bit of his story. Born in South Carolina, raised in North Carolina. He began his journalism career at The Spartanburg Herald at age 17, an age when most folks think about working at the grocery store or delivering pizza for extra cash.

This Carolina boy goes on to get a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. Oh and somewhere along the way, he served his country as a U.S. Marine. He added The Waco News-Tribune, The Houston Post, the Dallas Times Herald, the Associated Press and other publications to his resume. Any of us would be thrilled to have had as decorated a career at that point.

But that was not enough for David — he started a teaching career along the way.

And McHam has been teaching journalism since 1961. 1-9-6-1. He had stints at Baylor, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Arlington, and since 2001, he’s been with us at the University of Houston.

He wrote the book (literally) – Law and the Media in Texas. He’s won national teaching awards from SPJ and AEJMC. Couple of years ago Baylor honored him on the 50th anniversary of his teaching career. Tonight we get to honor him on his 54th.

In preparation for this speech I heard from several former students and some of his colleagues. Here’s a collection of what I heard.

 Students and faculty alike will miss David — a scholar, a much-loved professor and a fun friend!  

David always commented on how nice it was see you… even though he may have seen you the day before… or even just the morning before.  It was always… “good to see you.. and good talking with you!”

David is one of those great journalists turned journalism professors who, because he cares so very much, gives his students one of the best educations in journalism that they could ever receive.

From students:

He really cares about his students. He always has my back and has gone above and beyond to provide me with the support I need to be a successful person in this world. 

McHam doesn’t baby you, but he doesn’t give up on you either. He’s going to tell you things that make you think, and if you really think and ask questions, you’ll have the best education. He teaches you how to take ownership of your process of thinking, writing and learning.

McHam made it seem like he was just talking to you, not lecturing you. He would ask you, “Where’d you go to high school?” and he’d keep remembering that bit about you, and he’d make that personal effort.  He reached out and tried to connect to each and every student.

He was one of the best people to teach you what journalism really was if you actually listened to what he had to say.

Even though this semester is his last on the faculty at UH, the great thing about McHam is that his teaching will last forever. As has been said, his pupils number in the hundreds if not thousands, and can be found at all levels of this business, from the copy desk to the corner office. Many of them, like myself, have turned to education, compelled to share what little we know, and to live up to his example of generosity, candor and esteem.

So yes, returning to my first point. McHam may not be a Doctor … but I took Latin in college, and I know this.

Doctor comes from the verb docere — which means “to teach.” And I can think of no other person in my life who personifies the word better.

David, you are a master teacher, an example for all educators to follow, and you have earned the praise and admiration of your students and colleagues. Please come to the podium and accept this honor.

Byline plugin: lessons learned thus far

In the nine months and 1,000 downloads since I released Byline, I have learned a few things. Mostly I’ve learned that the more I learn about WordPress, the more there is to learn about WordPress.

Theme and plugin writers have created a massive ecosystem of tools for WordPress. This offers the power of flexibility but creates challenges across the map. Just a simple thing like displaying an author’s name is handled a hundred different ways across different WordPress themes. This creates a problem for Byline, because I rely on there being only one or two ways to display this. With my current knowledge and skillset, I do not see a strategy for adapting my approach to meet the needs of the wider WP community, unfortunately.

One of the problems with the user community of WordPress is that, while I know I have had 1,000 downloads, I do not know who most of my users are unless they have contacted me. Because of the issue I already described, I know a lot about what kinds of problems exist, but I’m also unaware of who is using it effectively without problems. That information would be good as well.

For some of the themes that my plugin has not worked with, I have been able to troubleshoot and offer custom code to get full functionality. But at this level of customization, you might as well be using Co-Authors Plus, which requires all users to modify the theme and offers a more complete author management tool.



Who I am: Crazy

I’m trying to summarize who I am right now professionally in 300-500 words for a class project. I ended up explaining my job the best way I know how. What do you think? 

Student media is for crazies.

Think about it. The media is a challenging business to begin with, but then throw in the profound disruption experienced in print, video and audio media, and you have a beast of an industry to manage.

Then, throw in there the challenge of funding, staying solvent and investing in new initiatives that promote growth amid all that chaos.

Then throw in the fact that your primary work force is a bunch of 18 to 24-year-olds, who want to be journalists/DJs/filmmakers this week, but might change their minds next week, and are also taking 15 credit hours, and working or interning somewhere else, or have just been named president of some other organization. And for piling on 20-30-hour work weeks, you pay them a meager stipend (if at all).

Also, the good ones graduate and move on, much more quickly than you’d like to admit.

Then, try to get your student-run media platforms to attain a level of excellence that earns national recognition, year in and year out. And oh yeah, forgot to mention: you have no control over content and no direct say in the major decisions that get made, other than to provide advice and feedback, with the hope that you have credibility and influence.

To make it in this environment, you have to be crazy.

You have to be crazy dedicated to students and creating the best learning experience possible.

You have to be crazy about media production. You have to at least understand the work, if not be capable of doing it yourself, just as the head coach of a football team needs to understand all of the components of the sport on both sides of the ball.

You have to be crazy about students’ First Amendment rights, which often bring them in conflict with community norms and institutional policies.

You have to be crazy about communication, about getting the right ideas and information to the right people, at the right time, in the right manner.

You have to be crazy about business models, finding the right balance of revenue, risk and reward. You have to be crazy about advertising, marketing and PR, and how it can be used to expand your business.

You have to be a crazy good listener and adviser. Any day you might change hats from media manager to guidance counselor to adult role model. If you don’t forge a relationship in these situations, you may not have the influence later when you need it most.

You have to be crazy patient and crazy generous with your time.

My name is Matt Dulin, and I am that crazy. And then some.

I’m a solutions-oriented, people-friendly, data-driven and a quietly strong-willed leader. I attack problems head on, from every angle. I obsess over details, whether it’s a line of code in a web project or an errant comma in a sentence. I don’t stop learning, trying new things, and sharing what I know so far.

I draw on a wealth of knowledge — whether it’s AP Style or cascading styles, picas or pixels, grammar or syntax — and a quick, creative mind to solve problems, to challenge others and to create great work, wherever I am and whatever the obstacle.

No comment?

“The 90-9-1 principle convinced me that many, not all, comment sections are an exercise in faux democracy. This theory goes that 90 percent of us will read something online and move on. Nine percent—I’m in this group—occasionally take time to comment. That leaves roughly 1 percent who dominate the online conversation, and among this smaller number is found the digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar….

“Encouraging a civil dialogue makes sense, so if I could, I’d get rid of anonymity when it comes to participating in the digital town common. I think people behave more civilly toward one another when their true identity is known.”

Alicia C. Shepard, Nieman Reports, 2011

I used this quote to introduce my first graduate-level literature review on studies about anonymous online communication and the effects on other participants. My hypothesis, never tested, was that communities where anonymity was allowed would end up a crowded space where viewpoints were silenced through sheer aggression. Further, requiring identification, as Huffington Post will now do as a matter of policy, will not actually prevent any legitimate minority viewpoints from being expressed.

By requiring its users to have verified identities, the Huffington Post is hoping that instead of censoring them directly, the hope is that users will self-censor. Or, in the words of Managing Editor Jimmy Soni: “We believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check.” In First Amendment battles, this is often called a “chilling effect.” So called because after a policy or punishment is handed down, speech is “chilled” or slowed down — prevented, not censored. Of course, the move comes when many are questioning just how private their online activities are, so naturally this all feels very disconcerting for some people.

Then take into account that Pew survey data shows that most people have taken steps to mask their identity or their trail online. In fact 1 in 4 adults said they have posted online comments anonymously. (There’s more interesting data in that report, check it out.) A solid  majority of people also recognize that it’s likely that no one on the internet is truly anonymous.

Before you post, ask:
‘Do I want my name on this?’

The more than 70 million comments that the Huffington Post received in 2012 were already subject to community standards that resulted in some comments being censored. The site has 30 full-time moderators who work literally around the clock. In six-hour shifts, they screen hundreds of comments each hour, like a postal worker sorting mail by hand. They also work with an artificial intelligence called Julia, which applies linguistic algorithms to pre-moderate and flag comments, according to the Poynter Institute article.

The Post is taking reasonable steps to protect its community. Every newspaper of good reputation has a policy regarding anonymous letters to the editor: they aren’t printed. They might be read and considered, but not printed. It’s reasonable to expect that if someone wants to speak up and say something to the community, they ought to do so publicly, with their name and reputation on the line. And we, as a civil society, ought to be able to tolerate that person’s views. A community of anonymous speakers can never truly be civil in the same sense. But, you could argue that we don’t have a completely civil society out here in the “real world” to begin with. And I’d say: Fair point.

Of course, if being anonymous serves your needs or is truly the only way to make your case known (like the Federalist Papers), you can always start your own website or forum, or print your own newsletter for that matter.

The move (and the predictable backlash by some of its users) remind me that this issue is still unresolved, and I don’t think it ever will be. Most of us will continue to “lurk” and not engage in online discussions. Those who do will increasingly have to ask themselves, “Do I want my name on this?”

Life’s a tricky business

Nobody sets out on a strategy to fail. But they make many, many small decisions along the way for short-term gain that end up in overall failure. It’s true in business and in life. We’ve known this for generations, haven’t we? And yet we all succumb to it at one point or another.

Clayton Christensen struck a nerve with me in this BBC interview. The man behind the “innovator’s dilemma” — explaining why big companies like GM fail when disrupted by a newcomer or why newspapers struggle to survive in the digital age — makes the case for how people drastically underestimate the effect that day-to-day decisions have on a fulfilling life. His full argument is laid out in “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

It’s also an argument about integrity — sticking to your guns, avoiding compromises.

It also churns up thoughts about faith.

I suppose the argument is there that religion exists to reinforce a message of long-term thinking throughout our lives — saving your soul is as long-term as it gets. I’m not super religious, but I have to acknowledge its utility. What other institutions are compelling us to do this, to willingly sacrifice for potential reward later on? I suppose educational systems and fitness centers do this for different aspects of our health.

Anyway, the book is on my reading list, and it’s only $4 for the Kindle. Check out the interview; it’s worth pondering.

Poetry is code

WordPress’ tagline preaches, “Code is poetry.” Therefore, poetry is code.

Writers need to take written language as seriously as a programmer takes code. English (and any other language, written or otherwise) is a programming language. It encodes meaning. Language has rules of syntax, grammar and logic; then there are matters of style. All are features of programming as well.

A poorly formed expression won’t function, whether it’s PHP or English. An errant comma or misspelled word can destroy a well intentioned sentence. Trouble is, most readers already know how to debug on the fly: we can instantly turn “their” into “there” if the conditions are right. A proofreader must turn off this feature and compile meaning word by word, clause by clause.

Learning to code, and observing good code, has deepened my appreciation for writing well and reading good writing.

Write on.