RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A news organization that focuses on social media called Storyful is little-known outside journalism circles, but many of the networks, newspapers and news sites that Americans turn to for trustworthy information depend on Storyful all the time.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, it provides journalists with the raw materials and confidence to pursue their own stories.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Say you were noodling through Twitter or Facebook several weeks ago and happened to come across a video that had popped up all over.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Aw, yeah. (Explosions).
FOLKENFLIK: The video shows a series of aerial strikes said to be by the U.S. on fighters for the so-called Islamic State in Syria. It looks pretty authentic and it is authentic footage of something, but an editor at Storyful warned journalists that the video had first been uploaded four years earlier. It had nothing to do with the attacks this fall. Such due diligence is invaluable to news organizations to prevent them from peddling false information, or from falling on their collective faces. Indeed, Storyful may be one of the few news organizations in the world where journalists exchange high-fives when they identify fakes.
MARK LITTLE: So I'm Mark Little and I'm the CEO and founder of Storyful, which we like to think about as the first social news agency.
FOLKENFLIK: As you may be able to guess from that accent and that voice, Little was previously a foreign correspondent and anchor for television network in his native Ireland and he operated for years on the premise that he could take viewers places they couldn't go on their own. But about five years ago, as mass protests in Iran were documented on Flickr and YouTube little realized that was no longer true.
LITTLE: Our mantra is there's always someone closer to the story.
FOLKENFLIK: He built a 24-7 team of several dozen like-minded journalists based in Dublin, New York and Hong Kong. Their mission - to seek out the best material that others are sharing across social media platforms and to verify it so Storyful's clients can trust it.
LITTLE: We're giving the alert which says somebody is on the ground, an authentic source. They are there, they are telling us that something has happened dramatically and we have technology that detects these signals. And we then at that point help our partners find the content that will define the narrative.
FOLKENFLIK: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. acquired Storyful late last year, perceiving both a cutting-edge journalistic model and the promise of profits from clients. Those clients include The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, People magazine, Vice and YouTube, as well as Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and New York Post. Storyful shares a floor in New York City with the Post, a tabloid that just made an undisclosed payment to settle a libel suit by two men it wrongly implicated in the Boston Marathon bombings in a front-page headline. But so far, Storyful is remaining true to its own painstaking approach.
MEGAN SPECIA: I'm looking for Ram Hamdan, which is the location.
FOLKENFLIK: Claims recently spread on Twitter that a suicide attack killed the leader of a Syrian rebel group. Megan Specia, then a duty editor at Storyful, showed me a heat map of postings by social media users who have already been identified as credible.
SPECIA: So plugging in certain key terms we can have access immediately to searches on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LiveLeak, Dailymotion, Vimeo, Twitter and Youku, which really speeds up the discovery process for our journalists and really gives us a chance to harness the best content that's out there.
FOLKENFLIK: Specia has since left for the digital media site Mashable. She says Storyful's journalists have to verify every piece of information they want to pass along.
SPECIA: I might look to see who the original uploader is, what types of content they've been sharing in the past, if they seem like a legitimate source to me and what I'm doing is applying, you know, traditional journalistic skills to new medium.
FOLKENFLIK: Editors run down the origins of dialects on tape, use metadata to figure out when a picture was really uploaded and check Google Earth to study terrain shown in videos. Sometimes Storyful's scrutiny involves playful topics. The organization helped clients steer clear of a viral hoax video about an eagle snatching a toddler in a park, for example.
Margarita Noriega is director of social media at the Fusion cable network, owned jointly by Disney's ABC News and Univision. Both are clients of Storyful.
MARGARITA NORIEGA: It was surprising to see that in fact so many newsrooms needed help finding more information. That's not something that I ever thought a newsroom with have a problem.
FOLKENFLIK: Noriega says her sole reservation about Storyful is that it's ripe for competition. A big company like CNN or Buzzfeed or The Times could make the investment to do precisely what Storyful does. In the future, she says, journalists everywhere could be able to do this for themselves.
NORIEGA: In the age of the Internet there are dozens and hundreds of stories that you just don't have the bandwidth to cover yourself. So what surprised me was Storyful actually had a business model to help.
FOLKENFLIK: For now, there's little competition in sight. CEO Mark Little says his team's formula blends data sleuthing, language skills, deep knowledge of foreign conflict and a lot of common sense.
LITTLE: We're very much of the opinion that we're turning content into stories. This is all about storytelling.
FOLKENFLIK: It is, Little says, all just reporting for the modern age.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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