Using Unverified Video: Make sure viewers know what they are seeing

The Executive Director of Honest Reporting, Mike Fegelman, complained about the use of unauthenticated video in a report from Gaza. The video was shot by an advocacy group and claimed to show a man being shot by a sniper. The complainant thought it should not have been used without at least two sources confirming it, and that is was not sufficiently clear this was unverified video. CBC obtained the images from Reuters and the decision to use it was justified. They could have been more explicit in explaining it though.

COMPLAINT

In your role as Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada, you strongly objected to the use of an unauthenticated video in a report about the Gaza war, broadcast on The National on July 21, 2014. You pointed out that this was a “hand-out film” and that in order for it to be considered news, you thought it required “authentication from at least two official reliable sources. You added that CBC had not provided any source and you thought that it should not have been aired. You also objected to the fact that CBC did not identify the organization that released the footage, the International Solidarity Movement, which you described as “hard-core anti-Israel activists who have no credibility.

The video, shot by ISM (International Solidarity Movement) volunteers purportedly shows the death of a Palestinian man who is out looking for his family during a lull in the fighting. He and the aid workers are walking through rubble and there are no other people visible. It appears that several sniper’s bullets hit him. In your initial email you say the “jury is still out” on the authenticity of the video but point to the fact that there is no blood visible in the video, and that the man’s identity is unknown, and you asked if there was any evidence that the Israel Defence forces were responsible. In response to management’s explanation you further point out that your organization cannot find the man, subsequently named as 23 year old Saleem Khaled Shamaly, on a list of “confirmed dead Gazans.” You also questioned the veracity of the footage, saying that "this looks like Pallywood to me." You thought CBC was being irresponsible running such a "provocative video" at a time when tensions are so strong:

“Emotions are running sky high right now in the Middle East and CBC ran this graphically provocative video that has the potential to stir up anti-Semitism which is on the rise all over the world – Germany, France, and Canada. There is no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to who is doing the sniping according to this clip, the Israelis, even though CBC doesn’t outright say so, but who the ISM publicly claims did the shooting. What else can a viewer surmise but to conclude Israeli culpability? The CBC also didn’t point out that the creators of this film, the ISM, are hard-core anti-Israel activists who have no credibility.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He explained that programmers are frequently faced with the decision they had to make about using the tape or not, when trying to report on regions in turmoil. He characterized the video as “a provocative tape, but without assurance that it is genuine or contemporary.” He explained why the decision might be made to use it without that assurance:

“In these moments, if verification is not possible, we may still judge a tape to be worthy of inclusion in our reporting, perhaps because it is having an impact on public discourse, or perhaps because we believe the likelihood that it is genuine is high. In these cases, we have a responsibility to make clear through our treatment that questions remain about the tape.”

He said that the CBC news story did in fact make it clear in the language used in the piece. He pointed out that twice reporter Paul Hunter “describes where the video is ‘said to be from’ and what ‘it’s said’ to depict. He also says that the script does not describe the sniper, referring to a “shooter”. Mr. Nagler said, “He absolutely does not ever suggest that an Israeli is responsible, even though the ISM (International Solidarity Movement) said in releasing the video this was the case.”

While he thought that The National had done an adequate job in conveying the unverified status of the tape, he did share your concern with the programmers that it was not sufficient. He assured you that this has caused active conversations about how explicit the explanation should be.

REVIEW

The challenge for news organizations in conflict zones, especially ones like Gaza and Syria, is there is no front line. Access is difficult and sometimes just too dangerous to attempt. Moving from areas controlled by one side to an area controlled by another is hazardous and sometimes impossible for long periods of time. News organizations look for other ways to convey all sides of the story. At the same time, the ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras and the ability to make the images globally available has been a complete game changer. Reporters and editors are faced with a tough choice –refrain from reporting on major wars and conflicts, or use video that is difficult to verify. It is hard to know who shot it, what is not in the frame that might change our perceptions of the images shown, and when and where it was truly shot. As images move their way through the internet, advocacy groups, groups with strong views of the conflict may alter images or try to “spin” them in a certain way. There are both digital tools and old fashioned digging that news people use to understand the provenance of an image or video. At some point it is a judgment call whether to run it.

In the case of the video shot and distributed by members of an International Solidarity Movement team, CBC acquired part of the footage when it was distributed by a Reuters news feed. There was about 3 minutes of video, which was further edited by the CBC News team for inclusion into a wrap up piece of the day’s events in Gaza, presented by Paul Hunter who was in Jerusalem. Most of Mr. Hunter’s piece used other news footage documenting damage done during that day’s fighting. The episode involving Mr. Shamaly is contained within that longer report. Mr. Hunter’s report was the second of two on the Israel-Gaza conflict aired on the national that night. It was preceded by a report, also out of Jerusalem, presented by Sasa Petricic.

Mr. Hunter’s piece was introduced by anchor Amanda Lang this way:


As Sasa mentioned, the sudden spike in violence means that more than 500 people have lost their lives in just two weeks. On top of that, Palestinian officials say more than 3000 people in Gaza are wounded. The CBC's Paul Hunter is also in Jerusalem tonight. A warning: the images you are about to see are quite graphic.

After describing a day of intense shelling, and showing a facility where civilians had fled, he introduced the ISM video:

This video is said to be from where they fled and underlines the degree of violence. Shot yesterday, said to be aid workers during a brief lull in the fighting, walking with a man looking for his family. The neighbourhood is in ruin and the streets are empty, save the man and the aid workers in yellow. Everyone else, it seems, has fled. "This is the house," he says. But within seconds, a sniper's bullet. The aid workers beg the shooter to stop, but more shots follow. Say the aid workers, "he died." They fled for their own safety.

When the video first came on screen, there was a brief super that read “Shejaia, Gaza – International Solidarity Movement.” The provenance of the material was briefly acknowledged. Mr. Hunter was careful in his choice of words, acknowledging that the episode was not verified. He also did not say who the sniper might be.

CBC policy on the use of third party video states:

CBC is responsible for all content on its news sites. This policy covers text, image, video or audio contributions from the public which are incorporated into news coverage on any platform. Material that originates from a non-CBC source is clearly identified as such. Before text, image, video or audio is published, its provenance and accuracy is verified.

In exceptional circumstances, it may be difficult to authenticate a contribution. There may be times where because of timeliness or if it is in the public interest, we decide to publish without full verification. We are clear with the audience about what we know. The decision to publish material without full authentication must be referred to the Director.

The CBC news team assessed the footage, but did not go as far as they would have, had the material come directly from a third party. In that case, the process is more rigorous. News organizations rely on agencies such as Reuters to act as the first filter. Doing so is industry practice. They had further discussions about how to handle the material and how to make clear it had not been authenticated. The decision to run it was made by Mark Harrison who is the Executive Producer of the National. He told me that there was to be an additional super used to label the tape unauthenticated, but it was not added when the material was broadcast. The producer of the item continued to pursue more information about the tape, and in the days that followed was able to learn more about it. Nothing learned caused them to revisit the original broadcast. They felt it was important to present images of the conflict from within Gaza because their own news staff had been unable to get in there for some time to do first hand reporting.

As I mentioned earlier the use of this kind of material is a judgment call and the decision to do so was not a violation of policy. Could they have been clearer about what they knew and didn’t know when the material was first broadcast? Given its controversial nature it would have been better to provide more context, and be more transparent both about the material and the decision to run it. While the material was identified as an International Solidarity Movement video, it would have been valuable information to let viewers know that it is an advocacy group.

In subsequent days, other news organizations followed up on the story. For example the New York Times featured a story about the family discovering that Mr. Shamaly had been killed through the video which had been posted on YouTube. The article quotes various family members and fills in more background to the event. Here is how the Times explained the video material and how it used it:

The video was recorded by a local activist, Mohammed Abedullah, at about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, during a two-hour cease-fire brokered by the Red Cross, when a group of volunteers and Palestinian rescue workers searched for survivors in Shejaiya. It had been under intense Israeli shelling since early that morning.

Mr. Abedullah’s video was edited by the International Solidarity Movement Palestine’s West Bank media office, which posted the video on YouTube with a headline assigning blame for the shooting to an unseen Israeli sniper. The activists provided 15 minutes 46 seconds of raw footage to The New York Times for review, and although it bears no apparent signs of manipulation, it also offers no clear evidence of the gunman’s identity.

I quote this at some length, because I believe it would be useful for CBC News to think about ways to help members of the public understand the process used, and give context that enables them to assess what they are seeing. In matters of controversy with few facts known at the outset, it also helps explain why the choice was made to use it. Mr. Nagler mentioned there was a discussion about how explicit to be. Being explicit reinforces a stated CBC News commitment to transparency and should be encouraged.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman