Andy Carvin was founder and editor of Reported.ly, a social media news operation that shut down Aug. 31, 2016, after its parent company, First Look Media, cut funding. In this edited transcript of our interview for the RJI Futures Lab update, Carvin explains Reported.ly’s core values and what made his team unique. He also talks about a few lessons learned and his hopes for the future of Reported.ly.
For those who don’t know, how do you describe Reported.ly?
It’s a news initiative that focuses on using social media to cover conflict, human rights, social justice as it plays out around the world in real time. We use a range of social tools to identify what’s happening, to debunk things and then to distribute it through social to reach audiences that might not otherwise know what’s going on.
In a recent keynote for the Online News Association, you talked a lot about the core values that your team developed. One was the idea of humility and openly admitting when you don’t know something. What does that entail?
The culture in journalism, especially when it comes to broadcast, has developed this idea that whoever is anchoring a broadcast, they understand everything, they’re on top of everything, and it’s their job to convey exactly what’s going on. In reality, there are situations where they honestly don’t know what the hell is going on, and they’re trying to piece it together like every other newsroom. But I think there’s a way of acknowledging that, with any breaking news cycle, there’s this period of chaos where you don’t really know what you know. And to be able to articulate that shows a certain respect to the audience and also lets them understand that we’re not pretending that we know everything. I made sure that I hired a group of people who would never feel uncomfortable answering a question about what’s going on and saying, “I don’t know yet.” Because I think when you see mistakes happen in mainstream media, it’s often because they’re playing for time, filling dead air and emphasizing things that they don’t necessarily know yet. So there’s an inherent caution and skepticism in the way we approach it.
You also talked about transparency as being a core value.
When you look at journalists on Twitter and Facebook, it’s often a one-way relationship. They’re there to share their latest stories or their latest accolades or whatever it is. Whereas there aren’t many people who just talk about themselves as regular human beings, and the things they love and hate about journalism, and the challenges of doing this type of work. And I think being part of those communities rather than parachuting into them creates a certain amount of authenticity that doesn’t always come across. That’s not a strategy to make us seem different — I think it also, in some occasions, gives us a competitive advantage. We hope to come across as being humble about what we know and what we don’t know, and transparent about how we got to this point, and more people come out of the woodwork to want to help us. So if something terrible has just gone on in some part of Libya, people will at-reply us and say, “Well, I speak that particular Libyan Arabic dialect.” And they’ll go and translate something for us. Or we will get something that’s in technical jargon we don’t understand, and some expert will explain what that all means. And I don’t think most people would do that for the typical news institution. I think by having a more open relationship with the public, it actually allows us to cover stories in ways that add more value to them.
Another unique quality you discussed is your team’s sensitivity. For instance, you would often post a description on social media of what a graphic image looked like instead of posting the image itself.
I’ve evolved a lot over the years in terms of how I handle graphic imagery. When the Arab spring started back in 2011, if you think about what Twitter looked like back then, it didn’t have a native system for sharing photos or videos. It was always (third-party) photo sites that may not even be around anymore. Because of that, it actually afforded you the opportunity to give people a choice. And footage was coming out of places like Syria and Libya. No one was paying attention; it didn’t seem like people were caring. I wanted to be able to say, “Here’s proof that there’s something horrendous happening. I’m not going to force you to watch it. I’ll even describe it for you. But if you feel comfortable bearing witness because you want to take a position or just understand what’s going on, here’s where you can find it.” And so I was very liberal in the way I shared graphic footage.
That world doesn’t exist anymore because if you go to places like Twitter or Facebook, they’re designed to have embedded media as the core functionality of it. You actually have to kind of obfuscate the link sometimes to avoid having something appear. And that can be so complicated that sometimes the easiest thing to do is say, “There’s footage out there. We’re not going to share it. This is how you can look it up. But let me explain to you what you would see.” And frankly I think we’ve all become a bit overwhelmed by just the sheer tragedy that we’ve seen in the world over the last couple of years. There comes a point where people get numb from the imagery. Sometimes it’s important to step back and just tell it as a story rather than hitting them over the head with yet another graphic or heartbreaking image.
You’ve also talked about making it a priority to debunk rumors.
People circulate all sorts of stuff during breaking news and other situations. I assume the vast majority of them don’t have the intention of sharing false information. But they don’t actually put an effort into confirming it first. One thing that’s become really common in places like Yemen, in particular, but other places as well, people will grab photos from Whatsapp because so many conversations over the last few years have moved from open social to closed messaging networks. So a friend of a friend of a friend will share something, they’ll screenshot it, send it to the next network. And by the time they get it, who knows what kind of daisy chain it’s gone along, and there’s no proof of anything in terms of what’s actually going on there. But they’ll share it as “the latest bombing that happened in Yemen tonight.” Or “a group of kids killed in Gaza today.” And it’s really important to get that right because sometimes when you find footage like that it can change the national conversation or the global conversation, especially when there are atrocities against children. Even if we hadn’t planned to cover it ourselves, we will often jump in and try to use some forensic tools to see what we can figure out, if there’s any provenance behind the footage. We can’t always tell. Sometimes we have to say we are honestly not sure if this is the correct situation. Sometimes we’ll share it but put in that context and ask people to look at it. Sometimes we’ll even take an image and watermark it — “debunked” — just so if people are going to circulate it, at least circulate a version that shows this definitely is not what you think it is.
Something else your team is known for is cultivating sources around the world mostly via social media.
It’s not something that happens overnight. Typically when you’re first getting your foot in the door in a particular country or culture, it certainly helps to know someone who knows someone and to have some introductions with people within local activist community. So you might even have conversations with them offline in a more traditional way of chatting, and as you develop a rapport with them, we also start paying attention to who’s a part of their social network. Who do they talk the most with on Twitter? Who are they following? Who’s following them? We’ll sometimes go to someone’s Twitter account and see who were the very first people they ever followed when they joined Twitter, because if it’s not celebrity, it’s a friend or a member of the family, and so that often helps us piece together relationships into a very crude form of social network analysis. And then we try to develop a rapport with people, and there’s often a word of mouth from people who say, “Wait, what’s this Reported.ly thing?” And someone will say, “Don’t worry, they’re OK. They’ll take us seriously.”
And I think by being humble and transparent in the way we cover what’s happening in their countries, we don’t presume anything about their culture. We don’t pretend we’re parachuting in. I think by displaying an inherent respect to their circumstances and even acknowledging we don’t fully understand it, I think helps develop that rapport and often leads to people coming back to us and saying, “I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but another bomb just went off” or “there’s a hostage situation in this hotel.” And that plays out again and again and again, one country after another.
It’s shoe-leather reporting using the Internet. It’s kind of like showing up at the local cop bar, having one guy vouch for you to talk to the other guys there. Maybe one of them will let you do a ride-along. Others will maybe introduce you to someone at the DA’s office. It’s exactly the same thing; we’re just doing it from 5,000 miles away and using the social tools to develop the relationship.
You assembled a very small team — six people at its peak — who all seemed to have a special team dynamic. What was that like?
I had a lot of people apply for the positions, and the first filter I used when looking at the candidates, I actually said out loud, does this person seem like an a–hole? Because there are a lot of great reporters out there who happen to be a–holes. Just the way it is. A lot of Type A personalities. And I didn’t want a bunch of people butting heads to get credit with each other. So I tried to find people who demonstrated that type of humility and a certain intimacy in their work and an inherent respect for the public.
What could other news organizations learn from how your team worked together?
I think it really begins with HR and, when given the opportunity to bring on a team, that’s your opportunity to set the tone. It’s hard to change people’s attitudes towards how they approach journalism. You might think, “Oh, I’ll convert them. They’ll become one of us.” It’s a hell of a lot easier if you can just focus on identifying people who seem to share similar values and approach it with an eye toward diversity, especially with the kind of news we’re doing. I knew I was going to desperately need linguistic expertise, cultural expertise. I purposely hired people whose families came from refugee backgrounds. It added not only a broader cultural dynamic but also added layers of empathy that I think might not exist if I had just gone on and hired the first group of people with the best resumes out there or the most number of recommendations. So I think it begins with hiring.
But then after that, before we launched, we spent a lot of time brainstorming basically a manifesto, trying to explain what our values are. I said, OK, this thing may change over time, but for the time being, consider this our constitution. And whenever we approach a story, I want you to be able to go back and look at this and ask yourself, did we do justice to what we said we were going to do? We also did our best to make sure that we could be constructively critical with each other as needed. There would be no hard feelings. Of course, there are times where we get on each other’s nerves, but that happens in any group. But I think bringing a group together that has similar set of values and a similar personality type makes it a lot easier to approach this type of journalism, which requires the sense of almost being community organizer rather than just a very traditional reporter.
You also emphasized compassion and how sometimes getting emotionally involved in a story, which is traditionally looked at as a bad thing, can actually help your reporting.
It’s tricky because it’s certainly not always healthy, especially when we’re telling stories about people in dire circumstances. I think everyone on the team has known at least one person or another over the last 18 months who’s been killed or has disappeared or been tortured. It’s the nature of the type of work we do. But I think, at the same time, if we approach it with a sort of clinical outlook, it wouldn’t do their stories justice. And it can get complex if you develop an emotional attachment to a subject or a story. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s the balance between being professional journalists but also approaching them as human beings who are concerned about what’s happening to them and sincerely wanting to tell their stories as best as possible.
What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned during the past 20 months?
There are a lot of things that happened over the last year and a half that we might have done differently. We bit off a lot, probably more than we were able to chew. For a while, we were going 18 hours, five days a week. We worked ourselves to a state of exhaustion, and it’s become pretty clear that if we are able to be born again in one form or another, that we need to be at a slightly larger scale to accommodate the reality, as you just can’t always be on. People need their quality time off with their family, but they also need to rotate away from subjects. You can’t be focused on Syria five days a week, 52 weeks a year. There are certain times where you say, OK, let me go work on something else, and we didn’t have the luxury of that. I think in many ways, that was probably the biggest lesson that came out of it. It’s amazing that we didn’t drive each other crazy in the process, but it certainly made things tough.
What’s the future for Reported.ly?
I’m in negotiation with the parent company that we were at to see if there’s a possibility (for me) to acquire the rights to Reported.ly and bring it elsewhere. So, trying to hope that this is the closing of one chapter and the starting of another.