From Ferguson to Afghanistan, video and photos from ordinary people are changing the news, but are they trustworthy?
Smartphone cameras have made eyewitness journalism something we see every day, with clips and photos on YouTube, BuzzFeed and Mashable taken on the scene by ordinary people.
For veteran war photojournalist and filmmaker John McHugh, who spent a decade covering Afghanistan, the Iraq war, Arab Spring and more, he’s seen the pros and cons of smartphones changing the way our news is collected.
In 2011 McHugh snuck into Bahrain during the Arab Spring uprising, one of the few journalists who made it into the country, but he arrived to find something surprising.
“Groups of people were filming with smartphones and sharing content that told their own stories,” McHugh told The Memo.
“That was when I really grasped the big change happening.”
Similarly in Nuristan, the Taliban controlled region of Afghanistan, while it’s impossible for western journalists to safely enter, local villagers have filmed executions and violence on their smartphones for the world to see.
Even the police killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson and the subsequent riots, were captured first by ordinary people on their smartphones.
“The power of the smartphone to create content like this for journalists is so incredibly powerful.”
But it’s not all good news, news organisations are now battling against millions of photos and videos being uploaded on social media, all which need to be verified.
“Publishers and broadcasters are desperate for this content,” says McHugh. “But they’re struggling because there’s so much stuff out there which isn’t verified.”
The BBC even has a dedicated ‘User Generated Content’ Hub with a team dedicated to collecting and verifying this kind of content, but even they are not always successful.
“Verifying content is slow, laborious, expensive because it requires people sitting at desks to do that, and at the end it might not work if you don’t find the person that created it or it turns out not to be real.”
Just last week the BBC was taken for a ride during a story about a Ryanair flight grounded due to the rowdy behaviour of a British stag party. Comedian Darius Davies claimed to have been on the flight and made up claims that members of the stag party had been nude and told staff that: “I don’t care if we crash, I have a helicopter”.
All his comments were false as Davies had never been on the Ryanair flight and did it simply because “he was bored”, Davis told the Mirror Online.
It’s is just the latest example of fakers and fraudsters taking news organisations for a ride and presenting journalists with a huge challenge.
“How on earth do you use something if you don’t know who filmed it or where it came from? This is the single biggest problem that is stopping organisations using more eyewitness reports.”
Now McHugh is on a mission to solve that challenge.
Today McHugh is launching Verifeye Media, a newswire built with technology from the ground up.
Their first product is the Verifeye Media Pro Camera app for iPhone, which doesn’t just take photos and video, but lets McHugh’s team at Verifeye access time, date, geo-location, altitude, and compass bearings to verify the authenticity of citizen and freelance journalism.
“We know if someone is at ground level or on the 10th story of a building looking down at a riot,” says McHugh. “We can even use these details to triangulate different contributors filming different views of the same event.”
Verifeye has been beta testing the app with a closed group of contributors and last week came face-to-face with a great example of the app in action when they received a video from the refugee camp in France.
“We had some footage from a contributor who is a volunteer working with the refugees in Calais, on Tuesday morning they filmed a pregnant woman and her partner sitting on a roof of their shelter, the riot police came in and battered the two of them with truncheons.”
Within minutes McHugh had the footage and had verified it based on the metadata attached to the video by Verifeye’s app.
“We had it within three or four minutes and we then sold it to Sky News, The Guardian and International Business Times.”
For its contributors Verifeye will offer a 50/50 split on verified video clips or series of photos that they sell to news organisations for £200, for broadcasters and publishers McHugh says Verifeye wants to become their one-stop shop for the best eyewitness journalism.
“Every person with a smartphone is a potential newsgatherer, and Verifeye is positioning itself to represent them all, a truly global news agency, verifying and curating the most important stories in the world.”
And with customers like BuzzFeed, Mashable and Sky News already lining up for McHugh’s verified quality content, Verifeye just might be the future of journalism.