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.

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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.


What do you read? Perhaps more importantly, when?

A student asked me recently what I read when I want to read good writing. It occurred to me I really haven’t done much of that recently. I scan and skim a lot of blogs, mostly about journalism, the media, media tech or college media specifically. Almost like checking the weather rather than actually diving into thoughtfully written material. But I haven’t done even that much recently, finding most of the blogs to be noise written to draw traffic rather than actually engage a reader.

I finished reading “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains” over the break and started up “Outliers: The Story of Success.” I like the way these books explain actual things that happened or are happening. There’s something interesting about the authors’ attempts at making sense of things.

I would read a major newspaper every day, but it’s gotten to be more of a shell of its former self, like a fossil telling a story of a different age. My favorite form of journalism at the moment is NPR. No reading involved, but I do feel like I’m gaining a deeper appreciation for the form. And yes, I’ve actually donated.

What do you read? And when do you find time to do it?

Non-profit news and the idealogy problem

News organizations are often painted “liberal” and “conservative” for good reason — usually because their editorial boards are generally left- or right-leaning. Sometimes this stigma carries over into characterizing news coverage, warranted or not.

Some of our nation’s earliest newspapers were, in fact, political newspapers established and funded (often by government subsidy) to further the interests of the party. Even in the last few two-newspaper towns, one paper was generally regarded conservative, the other liberal.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised then when the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism discovers that about 44 percent of the nation’s new non-profit news agencies have a clear ideological leaning and along with that, an unclear source of funding.

Those non-profits actually producing original, non-partisan coverage were generally more transparent in how they were funded. See the Texas Tribune, for example.

The Internet has merely given fertile ground for a new crop of partisan publications. The low cost of entry will ensure a healthy run of ideologically driven “news” agencies, but none of them will be a singular replacement for the moderate, generalist palate of ideas that the newspaper was. And that’s OK — we are gradually moving into a world where news consumers are creating their own palate of news sources on tablets and mobile devices and RSS readers.

To help educate us news consumers, Pew provides a few criteria to use to gauge a site’s journalistic worthiness. I’d like to see those applied to some mainstream media! Sure, the consumer must always be on guard. But for the non-profit news industry to mature, publications must adopt transparency and contextual clues to help readers ascertain whether what they are reading is information or whether it is opinion, or whether the news organization is at all concerned with producing new information in the first place. This basic virtue helped bring good journalism out of the murky depths of the partisan press and into real public service.