Reading Journalism and a world in transition: Wadah Khanfar’s James Cameron memorial lecture I thought I’d pick out this passage which relates to how Syrian activists have helped make material easier to verify:
The repetitive doubting, for instance by the Syrian authorities, of what al-Jazeera transmits of news and pictures received via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube and the accusations levelled against us that we fabricate such material, all of this inspired activists to come up with new ideas including a better documentation and authentication of demonstrations.
This they do by means of including in their footage the names of streets or images of landmarks or well-known public squares in the various cities; as well as including the date of each clip using a newspaper front page where the date of issue is clearly printed.
This is definitely something I’ve noticed in recent months. Below are some thoughts on how to extract this information usefully and the sort of things I look out for in a non-exhaustive, non-exclusive list.
The physical environment as source of verification
Physical objects that often people take for granted have become a very useful set of keys in my verification toolbox.
Landmarks and squares are pretty easy to pin down – tourists tend to take photos of them which we can use as reference. Plus they are relatively easy to spot on satellite imagery and to match up to wide shots in video clips.
When it comes to landmarks in the arab world, mosques are a favourite of mine as minarets tend to be distinctive and so easier to identify. These are the sort of buildings for which there tend to be photos I can use as a reference.
They’re only beaten by historically significant buildings or monuments for ease of identifying features I’m glad to see. Rarely do these go un-photographed.
Statues are absolutely brilliant on the grounds of their uniqueness – even if they are a common typology, their setting is usually unique.
Bridges are also helpful landmarks as anything filmed from a bridge tends to mean that there’s a clear line of sight onto the surroundings.
Street names, I’m less a fan of as it’s not always the case that the local name matches up with the one found on maps of the area.
Getting round the language divide
As a non-Arabic speaker, descriptive data that I can stick through google translate is always helpful. I’m fortunate enough to be able to rely on arabic speakers at work to translate handwritten dates and newspaper dates.
When one isn’t available there is an emergency workaround, which is a bit circuitous, so bear with me…
- Take the claims being made about location and date as you understand them or have translated from captions
- Highlight keywords in your translation (date, location) and check the original arabic it relates to
- Make a note of this arabic on paper and keep this in front of you
- Re-watch video clip looking for a visual match with the date and location information you have in front of you
- Find someone to give a second set of eyes to the match and confirm the matched information
This method is far from foolproof, but in emergency it may be enough of a level of verification to get you moving in the right direction. But given its slightly blurry results, I don’t use it if I can avoid it at all.
Note of caution
There have been examples where the dates, times and locations claimed on videos haven’t matched up, so it’s useful to do a longitudinal search for videos in the same location to ensure that the clip isn’t a reboot of older material.
This rebooting, in my experience, isn’t deliberate so much as a result of the sometimes unclear path via which material emerges. They don’t get uploaded chronologically or, well, logically at all. It’s as they surface.
But it can be deliberate if someone believes that it corresponds with a reported event and they feel that a clip can be used to represent it. I’ve seen this where a protest was illustrated with video from a similar incident in the same location a week previous.
In that sense it’s always good to have at least two indentifiable features that tally and are consistent.
Most of all, stay safe. I say this to everyone I speak to who is filming or photographing events. Even the most ordinary of events can pose a risk – for example tripping over a kerb while filming something across the road.
Small World News have done a nice guide to keeping safe when “in the field” which is worth downloading and reading.