Guidelines on the use of content from social networks

General guidelines

Content sharing and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are important tools for reporters and editors; they may provide a first tip-off to breaking news events and statements or be the source of otherwise unobtainable photographs and videos.

Under most circumstances, common sense and normal practice as outlined in our Stylebook guarantees proper usage of material posted on the networks.
However, because of the openness of the internet, use of this material carries significant risks to the agency’s reputation for reliability and accuracy, notwithstanding any legal issues. These guidelines, drawn up from our experience, are aimed at minimizing the risks to the agency by ensuring as far as possible the authenticity of the material, our rights to use the material, and that we have provided all the necessary context for clients.

Guidelines for text

Reporters and editors should monitor Twitter, Facebook, etc. just as they do other sites. They apply the same checks to reports from these networks as to news any other sources and they must ensure that the agency has the right to publish or distribute information integrated into their work.

What we can do

1. Monitor statements by personalities, politicians

Reporters should build up a network on Twitter and Facebook of trusted accounts relevant to their beat, whether politicians, personalities, contacts or the competition. Otherwise, we risk missing important statements and news alerts. There is no need to verify authenticated Twitter or Facebook accounts. For example when Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei returned home on January 27 we used his brother as a direct source but we also used a message ElBaradei himself posted on Twitter.

2. Provide reactions to events

We may use Facebook, Twitter etc. for evidence of reactions within social networking sites to soft news events, such as the death of a celebrity. However, we could not use those statements as a source for the event itself.

3. Search for people in the news, contacts

Social networking and content sharing sites can be valuable research tools, too. For example when French broker Jerome Kerviel was accused of a five-billion-euro trading scandal at Societe Generale, we were able to see co-workers he had listed on his Facebook site, and then to contact them for comment through a search in the White Pages.
We can also use official Facebook pages to appeal for witnesses.

4. Use as an alert to news breaks relevant to an event
Reporters may use Twitter as an alert by following key contacts and the competition and by tracking key words directly related to specific events such as a conference. On May 1, the death of bin Laden surfaced first on Twitter an hour before the official announcement by President Barack Obama via the account of @Keith Urban, who had worked with ex-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Such monitoring is an integral part of news-gathering which is our priority.

What we can’t do

An unverified statement on a social networking site may not be used as the source for a news break, nor for a description of unfolding events unless we are sure of the authenticity of the account .

We have been caught out in the past, for example by a fake Twitter account in which the British foreign secretary supposedly sent a message of condolence after the death of Michael Jackson ending with the words: "RIP, Michael."

Statements and breaking news on the social networks must always be verified with the person involved or their representatives. Be wary of totally fabricated stories online.

In September 2009, for example, DPA ran a story that a German rap group, the Berlin Boys, had mounted a suicide attack on a small town called Bluewater in the United States. The story was backed up by the group’s Internet site, the KVPK television news site and a page in Wikipedia. It was later discovered that neither the town, nor the group, nor the television company existed. DPA called a press conference to apologise.

AFP journalists must be scrupulous and careful when picking up comments published on the social network or internet.
Jokes (LOL) and the free and easy language which characterize the networks should not cause us to forget the basic rules: don’t quote from anonymous accounts, don’t publish comment that is smutty, libelous, racist, sexist etc. We apply the same standards to such comments as to those gathered during standard reporting.
Use of Wikipedia as a documentary source is banned. Don't quote Wikipedia, it does not meet our standards of reliability.


Guidelines for video and photo

We may on occasion use video and photos posted on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This may be unavoidable, for example, when professional media are excluded from an event by the authorities; when a witness has posted exclusive or extraordinary shots of a news event; when the only available photo of a person in the news is on a site such as Facebook; or when a posted video or photo becomes a story in itself.

Because of the potential risks to the agency’s reputation, images from social networking sites may not be used without regional or central redchef approval. In the most sensitive cases approval must be sought from the global editorial management, in liaison with the photo management in Paris.

There are three key questions to consider before publishing:

1. Does the material have a news value that justifies its use given the risks?
2. Have we verified the content, origin and ownership?
3. Have we provided the proper context to our clients?

Once a decision is made that the news value justifies its use, as in the Iranian post-election protests of 2009 or Syrian opposition demonstrations in 2011, the major challenge is to verify the content, origin and ownership rights.

Checking content, origin and ownership

Check if the image rings true

Does a photo or video show a scene that does not abide by the laws of light and shadow or that seems out of place given the context?

Always speak to the AFP journalist closest to the story to get an informed opinion. For example, before using YouTube videos from Iran, we asked the Tehran bureau to verify that the images had indeed been shot in the cities stated and that the scenes depicted tallied with reality. We have done the same with Libya, systematically referring to our correspondent in Tripoli who has authenticated some footage. Other locations have been confirmed from still photos posted on official sites before unrest erupted.

Verify five basic elements

Check these basic elements of posted images:

1. Location: Does the image show the location that the source claims it does?
2. Time: Does the video or photo correspond to the date and time claimed?
3. Source: Is the source’s identity and authorship confirmed?
4. Publication: Has the photo or video already been published or is it exclusive?
5. Copyright: Is the image protected and if so what are the specific legal terms?

Check with the source

We must make every possible effort to verify the image and ownership with the author or the subject of the material.

Photos and videos posted online have generally been stripped of ‘metadata’ which would otherwise provide important corroborative information such as the date and time.

If we are able to contact the source, therefore, we should ask for the original images which contain this metadata. These images are also usually of higher quality.

Check online

We can gain important evidence as to the authenticity of a photo or video by:

1. Searching for the same or similar images online;
2. Checking for links to the image;
3. Searching for the metadata and checking the format of the video or photo.
4. Finding the country in which a related Internet site is based.

These searches may serve to confirm or refute the claimed content, date, origin and ownership of the material. See ‘Authenticity checks’ in the ‘Online techniques’ section below.
The hashtag "fake" can also be used to search and monitor Twitter.
If the authenticity of an image on the social networks is in doubt we can also call on the expertise of our subsidiary Citizenside.

Providing context

Whatever the medium, provide clients with the information necessary to judge the authenticity and reliability of the image.
In exceptional circumstances we may decide to use a photo or video even when we are unable to verify the source, providing other checks have convinced us that the material is genuine and of such importance that it should be provided to editors with the proper context.
If we are unable to verify specific elements we should specify this in a disclaimer.
If we are unable to find the source we should identify the site carrying the material YouTube, Flickr etc. -- but otherwise there is no need to do so.

Global News Director