How to verify the origin of social media photos

Hurricane Harvey, like other natural disasters before it, has spawned a fresh crop of viral social media hoaxes that are believable enough to take hold. Readers swipe through feeds and their natural inclination is to react or share, not verify.

In times like these, verification is essential. But even experienced journalists can forget this basic discipline, as Katie Couric has demonstrated. The photo she tweeted Sunday is actually from a Houston Chronicle report in April.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 12.17.27 PM
Screengrab of @katiecouric’s alligator tweet

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If you want to avoid becoming the subject of journalistic schadenfreude, take a few minutes every time you come across this sort of thing and verify the images. It does not take much effort at all to verify images you find on social media. Here are two really easy strategies you should be using:

  • Reverse image search: Download a copy of the image. If that option isn’t available, try taking a screenshot. Upload the image to Google Image Search to see if it exists elsewhere on the internet. (This would have uncovered the source of Couric’s image above.)
  • Verify metadata: If you can get the original photo sent to you through a DM or email, save it to your desktop and upload to metadata reader site like Metapicz. Original image files that come directly from a camera or mobile device all store information like the time and date it was taken, what kind of device was used and GPS location data. This data can be stripped from files when they are uploaded to Facebook and also when they have been modified by software like Photoshop.

Also, if you’re not confident in the validity of an image, don’t share it.


Want to make a cool million more? Get a degree

The Brookings Institute compared the return on investments in bonds, gold, real estate and education. Assuming you are positioned to get a degree and a long career afterward, they found that getting a degree is just about the best investment you can make.

“On average, the benefits of a four-year college degree are equivalent to an investment that returns 15.2 percent per year. This is more than double the average return to stock market investments since 1950, and more than five times the returns to corporate bonds, gold, long-term government bonds, or home ownership. From any investment perspective, college is a great deal.”

Based on U.S. Census data reported in 2012, a worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than a worker with only a high school diploma. While college is expensive — let’s say $40,000 to $90,000 for a four-year career at a decent public school when you add up costs of housing, board and tuition — it can be far more expensive not to earn one, and that’s not mentioning all of the non-monetary benefits that higher education can offer — better writing and critical-thinking skills, a social network, work and leadership experience and self confidence.

Some say “College isn’t for everybody,” but it’s hard to argue there’s anything that does as good a job at preparing millions of people every year to work and lead the next century.

College daily newspapers are gradually dropping print

Four out of 10 college dailies are no longer printing daily.

How do I know? I checked the status of every college paper listed in a 1997 study by John Bodle that identified 101 college dailies. Back then, Bodle was trying to assess the relative independence of college newspapers from their host institution.

In doing so, he created a system to describe and categorize the schools based on their funding and structure. Looking across his original typology (which may or may not be accurate in today’s environment), the fate of college dailies has been fairly consistent. However, there is slightly more daily print publication still happening at college newspapers with more of an independent tilt. But not by much. And it’s also worth noting that if Bodle’s survey was administered again, we’d probably see some shift in the typology. A few more schools may have gained or lost aspects of independence in the last 20 years.

Type % not daily
Moderately curriculum-based (25) 44%
Moderately independent (27) 30%
Strong independent (12) 33%
Mixed (36) 42%

Of course, a vast majority of all of these newspapers — probably all but one or two schools — are publishing online daily and have potentially greater reach and influence than their 1997 counterparts. Because audience analytics data is often fiercely guarded, it would be hard to know which college daily has the largest digital footprint.

You can view a full data sheet here showing each institution’s newspaper along with the original typology and its publishing frequency as it could be determined in fall 2015.

If you know of a college daily that’s not on my list but should be, drop me a note in the comments.

*I added a link to my source table and edited this post after publication for clarity.

Honoring David McHam, a master teacher

David McHam/Baylor Alumni Association photo
Baylor Alumni Association photo

After more than 50 years of teaching, David McHam is retiring from the University of Houston at the end of this semester. I leapt at the opportunity to speak at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication scholarship reception to honor him and present a plaque recognizing his contributions to UH and to the journalism world. My remarks are below. 

Dr. McHam!

Yes I know, “Dr.” McHam is not accurate. I do like to call him that, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But McHam, see, he’s always the first to correct me.

McHam does not hold a doctorate and he sure as hell isn’t an M.D. Though, now that I think about it, he probably has saved a few lives — students whose careers almost flatlined before they made it to their junior year.

We all know David, don’t we?  You probably know a bit of his story. Born in South Carolina, raised in North Carolina. He began his journalism career at The Spartanburg Herald at age 17, an age when most folks think about working at the grocery store or delivering pizza for extra cash.

This Carolina boy goes on to get a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. Oh and somewhere along the way, he served his country as a U.S. Marine. He added The Waco News-Tribune, The Houston Post, the Dallas Times Herald, the Associated Press and other publications to his resume. Any of us would be thrilled to have had as decorated a career at that point.

But that was not enough for David — he started a teaching career along the way.

And McHam has been teaching journalism since 1961. 1-9-6-1. He had stints at Baylor, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Arlington, and since 2001, he’s been with us at the University of Houston.

He wrote the book (literally) – Law and the Media in Texas. He’s won national teaching awards from SPJ and AEJMC. Couple of years ago Baylor honored him on the 50th anniversary of his teaching career. Tonight we get to honor him on his 54th.

In preparation for this speech I heard from several former students and some of his colleagues. Here’s a collection of what I heard.

 Students and faculty alike will miss David — a scholar, a much-loved professor and a fun friend!  

David always commented on how nice it was see you… even though he may have seen you the day before… or even just the morning before.  It was always… “good to see you.. and good talking with you!”

David is one of those great journalists turned journalism professors who, because he cares so very much, gives his students one of the best educations in journalism that they could ever receive.

From students:

He really cares about his students. He always has my back and has gone above and beyond to provide me with the support I need to be a successful person in this world. 

McHam doesn’t baby you, but he doesn’t give up on you either. He’s going to tell you things that make you think, and if you really think and ask questions, you’ll have the best education. He teaches you how to take ownership of your process of thinking, writing and learning.

McHam made it seem like he was just talking to you, not lecturing you. He would ask you, “Where’d you go to high school?” and he’d keep remembering that bit about you, and he’d make that personal effort.  He reached out and tried to connect to each and every student.

He was one of the best people to teach you what journalism really was if you actually listened to what he had to say.

Even though this semester is his last on the faculty at UH, the great thing about McHam is that his teaching will last forever. As has been said, his pupils number in the hundreds if not thousands, and can be found at all levels of this business, from the copy desk to the corner office. Many of them, like myself, have turned to education, compelled to share what little we know, and to live up to his example of generosity, candor and esteem.

So yes, returning to my first point. McHam may not be a Doctor … but I took Latin in college, and I know this.

Doctor comes from the verb docere — which means “to teach.” And I can think of no other person in my life who personifies the word better.

David, you are a master teacher, an example for all educators to follow, and you have earned the praise and admiration of your students and colleagues. Please come to the podium and accept this honor.

Newspaper sites: Drop comments, but not interactivity

The keyboard, where many ill-advised comments are brought to life

Online comment sections on news sites are generally regarded as horrible, especially when anonymous writers prevail. Many sites have abandoned anonymous comments, but Reuters, PopSci and other publications have killed their comment sections altogether.

Obviously, there is an innate value to taking in community feedback and there has to be a place for that. What the news organization needs to do is maximize the reward (to audience and organization alike) and minimize the costs. I can get behind the kill-comments movement if it means that the website evolves smarter interactivity and empowers readers to actually help each other and the publication.

Forums — First, create a section for reader interaction that exists outside the content section. At the bottom of articles where comments would normally appear, offer an option to “talk about this in the forums.” Clicking it creates a linked thread back to the article. If a thread has been created, this button could intelligently say “Join 10 other people talking about this topic in the forums.”

Look at the popularity of link/forum sites like Reddit; they develop intensely passionate fans. Volunteer moderators could be trained to keep discussions civil. This should be an in-house module rather than sending people to other networks to have the conversation.

Content-aware actions — At times, readers use the comments section to call out a publication’s mistakes, to disagree with a writer or voice some other complaint. Based on the nature of the content, different actions could be provided at the close of the article:

Opinions/editorials/columns – A button for up vote/down vote to show aggregate community support or disapproval of the article stance. A button for “write a letter to the editor” that takes you to a page with tips on how to write an effective letter that would be published.

Movie/restaurant/reviews – A method to “post your rating” with a pre-determined scoring system. Your critic’s scores can be matched up with the readers, like a Rotten Tomatoes for restaurants, bars, local events, etc.

Event previews — Buttons to “add this event to my calendar,” open a locator map, buy tickets. After an event, the recap story can ask specifically for attendees to respond.

General news — An option to “Report a correction” should be on every article. You could also have calls for contributions, photos, videos right there as well, if the event is well suited for crowd-sourcing.

These would be some interesting features to build into a news-based content management system.