Phil Sands working on the Turkish Syrian border
Sat in a hotel in Turin. Tomorrow I’ve a short walk to the UNICRI HQ where I’ll be leading a workshop for journalists and reporters. Preparing them for the various cyber threats they are now facing. Be those threats from governments or individuals.
My workshop covers a lot of ground over the two days, including some serious, intimidating questions, ones that are not always easy to find good answers to.
The evolution and work flow of the networked journalist | Recognising, communicating and protecting against cyber threats |Civil liberties and state control | Freedom of expression Vs National security |Verifying and protecting sources | Encryption tools and techniques | Safe data storage
In my research running up to this event I got to pick a lot of brains. Many of the conversations happened in encrypted channels. Thanks to platforms like Peerio, it’s getting easier to get the uninitiated plugged into ‘secure’ text communication’. Of course how secure is dependent on the threat model you work under.
While researching the latest tools and techniques, I’m reminded that the kind of journalists I’ll be working with are often based in dangerous parts of the world. Far away from the fully equipped high tech news desks with their fat bandwidth, HD screens and verification tools. These guys will be using their old school journalism skills alongside whatever modern tools their environment allows.
News travels faster today then ever before. Once it hits the web it has the potential to travel worldwide in the touch of a screen. It’s more important that ever that the modern day reporter/blogger/journalist knows how to verify the stories before they hit the feeds. Their verification techniques intertwined with their news gathering methods.
One of the conversations I had around this was with Journalist Phil Sands. I have worked with Phil on various projects over 12 years. From the local news paper, to assignments in the Middle East destined for traditional and newer media channels.
I chatted with Phil about his basic workflow in regards to verification in the field.
He told me he hasn’t a codified set of steps. More like a ‘how it kind of works’ guide. Anything online has a data trail. Meta data rich in clues. Working as a foreign correspondent, perhaps even in a war zone you are lucky to get your hands on the simplest of documents. The usual way things go are: no documents, no paper trail
He wrote down some pointers and called it ‘How to do journalism in a fog’. Groping for the truth as best you can.
This is just one way to work in the less than perfect circumstances of Syria today. It’s a frustrating, imperfect process. Far worse for those in the news.
Phil’s kit list consists of:
Macbook Air (with encrypted hardrive)
Ruled reporters notebooks for writing shorthand notes in
Felt tip pens
Phil tells me It takes time and often a bit of lateral thinking to verify information in reports. It is difficult and needs patience. It can take weeks to find sources that will confirm your original source. Paper is always great. Paper trails, documents, photos, audio people have that will confirm their stories. The Snowden revelations were made as powerful as they were because they were documents. Evidence backing up what would otherwise have been a guy saying things. They had the proof. They found the smoking gun, or rather, the reporters were handed the smoking gun by the source; in Snowdon’s case, a great source who sought out the right journalists.
You need to find as many ways of confirming information as you can. These should be independent of each other. You need to be wary about feeding information you have to sources too. For example. If you have a certain piece of info and ask someone who ought to know about it if it is true, they might say it is just because they want to look like they are in the loop. They might, of course, refute the information, which is useful too. The biggest danger is them not wanting to say, “I don’t know”. That’s the mark of a great source; one who has the guts to say they don’t know the answer to something. Far better they do that than try to make one up or just talk around it.
The other key is to be honest with yourself, your editor and your community about what you DO NOT KNOW. Make a list of missing information, a ‘gaping holes’ list. Ideally you want no gaping holes. Sometimes there are holes. If they’re too big, too crippling, you keep working on the story until you can fill the holes. If you can’t fill them to your, and your editors’ satisfaction, you have no story. But keep the notes – you might find the missing piece to the puzzle a month, or a year, or years later, and it may still be relevant.
Again, it is important, and not a failure, to acknowledge what you know and don’t know. Be hard headed about it, and honest with yourself.
Phil goes on to say, “I suppose a fairly typical path for me would be that outlined below. Especially for stories I’ve written about fighting and developments in southern Syria post 2011. Note; this is a place where first hand access for a non-Syrian reporter is almost impossible and paper evidence is almost non-existent. There is a lot of groping around in the dark for fragments of information. Lots of patient sifting of those fragments to try to piece things together. It is not always easy to succeed. Other places, other reporting environments will be better, and less opaque. I suppose others might be more challenging.
1 – A general conversation over coffee with a source will turn up various interesting bits and pieces of information. Leads that are worth tracking down.
2 – I’ll go home, read through my notes and look again, hard at what the source said. This makes me think of various follow up questions.
3 – Pose those follow up questions to the original source. Try to round out the information as much as you can. Find out as many details as you can. Even stuff that doesn’t seem important. It can add to the authenticity of things. For example apparently irrelevant things like the weather or the clothes people wore.
4 – This follow up with the original source is a chance to push them on details. Are they telling you something they heard? Something they saw with their own eyes? Something that happened to someone else, or to them? Get names, if they have them – who said or did what, and when. Try to put together a timeline for the events they’re talking about.
5 – If there is any complex geography involved, work through a map with them. Get them to annotate a map. Keep pushing on details, see if they contradict themselves.
[None of this is simple; sources don’t want you behaving as if they are lairs. You need to be subtle and appropriate in the way you do this. You don’t want to burn your source – the best sources are ones you get to know and trust over time, people you can keep returning to.]
6 – When you’ve got as much as you can from the original source, do an open source check the things they say. If they have referenced a battle on a particular day, do an online search to see if the fighting happened where they say it did, and when. That stuff is often out there on the web.
7 – Triangulation of sources. When I’ve got all I can from the original source, I’ll think about who else I know who might have knowledge of what they are talking about. If it’s a battle in southern Syria, for example, I’ll find other people involved in the fighting and I’ll ask them for their accounts. This might involve one or more interviews, or a face to face interview then a follow up phone call or secure chat, to confirm details and ask follow up questions.
8 – At this point, you have two sources talking about the same thing. Do their accounts tally? What adds up, what doesn’t?
9 – Hopefully you’ll have at least one other source to talk to, for that triangulation to happen.
10 – If the information is secretive in nature, if you have a single source inside a military operation room, it will by definition be hard to confirm things they say. There are ways of firming up details of the story. Sometimes with other contacts. There are also times when you have to make a judgment on whether what the single source is telling you is credible. Again, at that point you have to judge their track record for providing information, talk it through with editors. Make it clear to readers that the story is single sourced, and talk about the reasons why that source should be credible. As much transparency as possible.
11– Remember your duty is to protect the source and the truth – don’t put them at risk – Check facts.
12 – Be very precise in your wording when writing the story. If it was a single source, say that. If it was a single source, but confirmed by two more sources, say that. If you have been unable to confirm a piece of information but are running the story anyway, based on your and your editors’ judgment, spell that out: “This could not be independently confirmed.”
13 – And remember if you cannot confirm something, try harder! Be patient! Keep looking. Your job is to confirm things. There is no point being first to a story and wrong. Get it right. If that takes more time, so be it.
Phil rounded up his points by telling me refusal to comment – or control of information – by one side, should not mean an issue is not reported. That in Syria, for example, the regime tightly controls information and routinely denies everything bad about it. It denied shelling Homs in 2011 for example. And it continued to deny it even when Marie Colvin for the Sunday Times and Paul Wood for the BBC got it, at great personal risk, and reported it happening. Colvin was killed for daring to do that. That’s an extreme case of verification but, in Southern Syria today, Phil’s believes it is impossible for an independent foreign correspondent to get access to the southern front.
“That does not mean we should not report on the war there.” he says. “It means it is more difficult to do so, and requires different techniques.”
And today Storyful and Reported.ly lead the way in these online verification techniques.
Phil plays all this down as just something he does. But think about how different things may have been if the New York Times paid this much attention to their WMD story. This kind of attention to detail is why journalism is journalism. Today’s bloggers and citizen reporters would do well to look into the tried and tested ways of reporting.
Maybe it feels out of place with our constant demand for ever faster news. It’s easy to get sucked into stories as they unfold online. But as a news consumer, I’d rather take this more considered approach over micro-blogged speculation on a drone’s live feed. I’d rather wait for the full facts to emerge than have to return later to read the apologies and corrections.
There is a great quote written in the entrance hall to the Washington Post’s offices (I’m told, I’ve not been there and seen it with my own eyes, but I’m sure it’s there!), which is worth remembering. “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained.” You can drop the ‘newspaper’ if you’re working in a different medium, but that remains the reporter’s job. That remains your job. Be diligent, be honest, work hard for the facts, they won’t always come easily and that’s part of what makes them so much more valuable than speculation.
Thanks to @PhilSands for sharing how he works. I’ll be discussing these points and how to protect your sources over the next couple of days. Please feel free to add to this resource in the comments below.
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