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Published on July 15th, 2013 | by EJC

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AFP’s Social Media Strategy: From the Ground to the Newsroom

Personalisation is crucial when it comes to the use of social media. As Steve Buttry points out, journalists’ individual use can play an important role in finding sources, building trust through engaging with people, and increasing reach by sharing a newswire’s published contents. One of the reasons behind personalised social media’s popularity is that people feel they are connected to a person instead of an established entity. While the benefits of using social networks like Twitter and Facebook is undeniable for newsrooms, drawing the fine line between professional and personal use is still a tough issue. This is especially the case for newswires whose value lies in the speed and accuracy of the provided information.

In November 2011, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) set up social media guidelines that aimed to encourage its reporters to use social networks and streamline their use. Similar to many other newspapers and wires, the agency recognised both the advantages and possible issues that can arise from using social networks for their news gathering/sharing process. A new version of the guidelines, which will be published this month, specifically aims to encourage reporters to be proactive on social networks, as opposed to emphasising what they cannot do.

Run by a small team of one Anglophone and three French speaking staff members, the AFP’s réseaux sociaux team at the headquarters acts as the central hub that monitors the inputs by its reporters who are based all around the world. Today, more than 800 AFP reporters use Twitter. The reality however is that only one fourth of this group is considered to be very active. While their main task is to promote AFP contents via social networks, the team also promotes the way in which their reporters are using social media by, for example, sharing the best practices of crowd engagement.

The guidelines set in place point out the use of social networks “as a tool to interact with the general public, engage in the real time news process, tap into new sources and identify trends”, and puts an emphasis on respecting “the ethical values of the agency and its guiding principles of fairness and balance (… and) the independence and impartiality of AFP.” It recommends that reporters register on Twitter by clearly mentioning their first name and surname, and affiliation to the AFP. Monitoring the reporters’ updates on social networks is carried out by the réseaux sociaux team at the headquarters via TweetDeck.

Needless to say, the AFP heavily relies on their reporters for the verification of facts and events on the ground. This is important for the coverage of fragile situations, such as those taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.

On 15 March 2011, there were a number of updates on social media stating that there was a demonstration taking place in a market in Damascus. By the time the journalists from the AFP bureau arrived at the scene, the demonstrators were nowhere to be found. Soon after, a video was uploaded to Youtube, which was authenticated as proof of the start of uprising against Assad in Syria. 

Ezzedine Said, the Chief Editor for the Middle East and North Africa, points out the importance of getting tips from local sources in order to compare statements against various usual trusted sources. They monitor and get updates from local networks varying from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and political outlets, such as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, to activists and local opposition groups. However, verification is carried out by the journalists themselves.

On few occasions contact numbers for witnesses on major stories were provided, mainly by militant groups, through Twitter, but again we have to be very careful when reporting what they have to say because there’s always a risk of manipulation,” says Said. 

When it comes to verification of audiovisual contents shared by the crowd, the team takes further steps in the investigation process by applying both technical and journalistic methods. For still photos, the team checks the file info or the photo properties that are automatically saved on the camera as data. “The XIF file can reveal lots of information”, says Patrick Baz, the Photo Manager for the Middle East and North Africa. The verification team goes through a series of basics steps every day when verifying photos, which includes: Looking at the date, hour, serial number and model of the camera, as well as examining GPS location in case the image was shot with an iPhone that contains a GPS feature.

For still images that are uploaded onto social networks such as Facebook and Flickr, the team needs to pay extra attention as most of the social networks automatically delete the XIF. Under these circumstances, they must try to find the footage that is being uploaded on social networks on the same day that also contains the same still image. Only one out of five images are found to be authentic content that was uploaded by the witnesses themselves.

Google image search is another key method used when verifying as one can see if the same image was uploaded earlier so as to make sure the photo is coming from that day and not from years back.

The agency usually does not use low resolution images. If they do decide to usethem, they must first get in touch with theoriginal source in order to get authorisation and ask for a high resolution image. A high resolution photo sent straight from the source’s computer into the AFP’s system allows them to verify that image.

For video footage, usually there is more than one video being uploaded on an event, which makes it easier to confirm the date. Looking at landmarks helps to verify the location, and performing a Google and/or Youtube search in Arabic gives more and better leads to the source.

Grégoire Lemarchand, the AFP’s Social Media Manager points out the importance of accuracy over speed. “Speed has always been critical for AFP. But in the age of Twitter, we are less and less likely to be the first to report something. That leaves accuracy. There were so many rumors in the hours after the Boston Bombings, most of them false. We took more time, and we got it right. Accuracy has to trump speed.

Photo: Nazly Ahmed

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