Last week I had an opportunity to spend some time with Andy Carvin. He is a journalist with National Public Radio who broke the story of the fake Syrian lesbian blogger “Amina Abdullah”. You might have seen him briefly on The Daily Show, and the story is an amazing hoax that finally broke apart with a lot of investigation.
The blogger, as it turns out, was actually neither Syrian nor a lesbian, but the genesis of a married couple living in Scotland: Tom MacMaster and Britta Froelicher, the latter an expert on Syria.
And while it is true that on the Internet, no one knows you are a dog; in this case, a lot of people helped Carvin finally figure piece together the dogs’ identities. There are some important lessons for online journalists here, and those thinking about becoming or continuing in this trade in the coming years.
First off, Carvin uses Twitter as his personal assignment editor. He tracks trends and does lots of searches and posts queries to stay on top of what could potentially be news, or to direct his own research. Twitter makes this both easy and hard, because a lot of what is posted or retweeted can be just noise. It helps to have fined honed instincts here.
Second, he archives and collects the elements of his stories in Storify.com, which is a tool that can be used to snapshot Tweets and blog posts and pictures so you can see the particular moment in time that he is researching. If you haven’t yet used Storify, it is worth taking a look here.
You can see Carvin building a case that Amina was phony and how he tracked down who “she” really was – asking his Twitter correspondents whether anyone actually meet her face to face or over video chat.(McMaster was clever and often stated that the Syrian authorities were blocking Skype videos, something that was patently false.) This the way new style of reporting, and what is intriguing for me is that you can see how the pieces came together in uncovering the hoax merely by scrolling from the bottom to the top (it is a lot of scrolling, granted, but all the more impressive showing how doggedly Carvin pursued things). Back in the olden days, we just had phone calls and hastily scribbled note pads. Storify is the reporter’s new notepad.
Third, social media is both a blessing and a curse. Rumors can spread like wildfire, and truth can be hard to come by. One of the reasons that the Amina hoax persisted is that McMaster was a terrific writer, able to get into the voice and perspective of his part. McMaster also used gay dating sites to establish a relationship with a real lesbian in Montreal, which I guess was used to build his street cred for his character. Reporters have to understand the multiplier effect of social media and treat this carefully, or they could fall into the trap that many of them did in their original reporting of Amina’s phony kidnapping. You have to dig deeper and be persistent. You also have to treat your sources with a lot more care, because we are dealing with real human relationships here – no matter if they are online ones.
Finally, there is this paradox: as reporters such as Carvin build massive Twitter followings (he is nearly at 50,000), they become their own independent brands. NPR has been terrific in letting him operate independently, but other organizations may not be as tolerant. We still don’t have the best models for how businesses can transfer or use the popularity of their superstars.
Ironically, Carvin, like myself, has never had any formal journalism school training. Perhaps that is a sign of things to come as well.