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REVEAL | June 3, 2023

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Interview with Silvia Costeloe, BBC

Interview with Silvia Costeloe, BBC
Jochen Spangenberg

How do journalists verify content they find in Social Networks? What are current challenges and requirements? Which solutions are already deployed? We wanted to find out! Hence we conducted a number of interviews with journalists. Here is one of them.



Silvia_Costeloe (left, photo taken in 2011, by Jochen Spangenberg)

Silvia Costeloe (left, photo taken in 2011 by Jochen Spangenberg)

Someone who gave us very illuminating insights into the dealings with Social Media as part of the newsgathering process is Silvia Costeloe of the BBC. Silvia works for BBC World News TV and has previously worked for the BBC’s User Generated Content and Social Media Hub (in short: UGC Hub). Hence, she has a wealth of first hand experience. We are delighted that she talked to us. Here are some excerpts of the interview we conducted with Silvia in February 2014.

Jochen Spangenberg: Which Social Networks do you use professionally on a more or less daily basis?

Silvia Costeloe: I use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, TumblR, Blogs and Google+.

J.S.: How do you use Social Media professionally?

S.C.: In the area of newsgathering, the main issues are finding content of interest from the general public or non-professionals in any format (e.g. audio, video, text). In other words: I look for material that does not make it to the wires [news agencies]. This way we can unearth new stories, or discover specific angles to something we cover already.

J.S.: When you find content in Social Networks that you would like to use in your reporting, what do you do?

S.C.: That really depends on the particular task I have been assigned. Speaking more generally, I do the following: check if content I find on Social Networks is mentioned elsewhere (e.g. in the reporting of other news outlets, by other journalists) and try and get in touch with and talk to the person who posted it. This includes going through a meticulous interview process with him/her in order to verify what is said or has been posted. Verification is the most important aspect here.

“All this is like a jigsaw puzzle”

J.S.: How do you verify content from Social Networks?

S.C.: This, again, depends on the particular task I work on or have been assigned. The most important thing is trying to make direct contact with a contributor. That is usually the first thing I do. I also look at what other journalists or organisations are saying on the matter, and check if it was re-tweeted and shared by others, especially by people or organizations I trust. This does not stop me from cross-checking the information though. I also use various tools in the verification process. However, none of these tools provide 100 per cent accurate results. That is why I use a variety of tools and tactics, trying to verify as many aspects of a post or comment as possible (e.g. the contributor, the time something is supposed to be portraying, the content itself, supposed geographic location etc.). All this is like a jigsaw puzzle. My job is putting all the individual pieces of information together and, on that basis, finally making an informed journalistic judgment.

J.S.: Can you say a bit more about individual steps or what you look out for when you verify material?

S.C.: In the verification process, I use the following three general steps or try to answer the following questions:

  1. Is this the right time (i.e. could something be posted at the time that is stated?) This is sometimes hard to assess, for example compared to place-checking, so I primarily “Google around”.
  2. Is this the right place (i.e. could something be posted at the location that is stated?) For checking this, Google Street View is a fantastic and useful tool.
  3. Could this be a hoax, or could the contributor have malicious intentions? To assess this, I check the profile of a person online. I check if a photo has been photoshopped, and use various tools and technologies to see if something is not what it is supposed to be.

J.S.: What would make your working life easier when it comes to the verification of Social Media content?

S.C.: A tool for video verification would be nice. A tool that finds similar videos on YouTube would be most useful. Also, a tool that shows me where pictures and videos were taken would be of help. Another useful tool would be a location tool: by that I mean a tool that shows me who is tweeting from where and lets me filter out tweets according to the user’s location. For example it would allow for requests such as “give me only tweets of people who have been on location X at time Y“.

Obstacles when verifying Social Media content

J.S.: What do you regard as the major obstacle when it comes to verifying Social Media content?

S.C.: None of the existing tools are completely authoritative. Different things can be done for different purposes. There is nothing that tells you that something is real. Nothing gives you a clear and 100 per cent reliable answer that something is true or accurate. Fakes can be spotted and detected. Tools can aid there very well. But no tool can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that something is true. Making that judgment requires journalistic skills and a human being. In addition to all that, there is too little verified information out there, it is sometimes difficult to separate marketing from real information, and many platforms I use are not really tailored for journalistic needs and requirements.

J.S.: Anything else you would like to add?

S.C.: Everyone is so scared of putting out and distributing fake material these days. A lot is at stake, especially trust and reputation. The good thing is that this has led to more cooperation, especially among broadcasters and journalists. Crowdsourcing is a very useful element here, too.

Thank you very much for this interview.


More interviews we conducted as part of our REVEAL work are just a click away:


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