Does Authenticity Guarantee Access?

Media Verification Technology and the Threats That Independent Journalists Face

BY Stephen Queener

Peering through the photos held in the 78 Days Archive, specifically those displaying images of civil unrest in America, I can’t help but think of the people behind every camera. This last year has been especially dangerous for anyone who has tried to document this historic time, as assaults and arrests of members of the press are at an all-time high. Much of this is the result of distrust in media and fake news rhetoric manifesting itself in violence. The journalist has become the story, simply through their sheer presence on the scene. 

Looking closer, it’s also clear that independent and freelance journalists have borne the brunt of these attacks. By acting independent of large media groups, they arrive on the scene without access to the protections and institutional credibility of media corporations. As a result, their credence as “members of the press” in the eyes of others is always fluctuating. On every instance of controversy – whether they are assaulted, arrested, or otherwise targeted – the tendency to see independent journalists as physical manifestations of fake news grows in salience. It is far easier to justify an attack on journalism when the status of ‘journalist’ has been revoked.

Could the CAI standard not only help authenticate news, but also help protect the status of independent journalists? 

As an avid reader and follower of many independent journalists, it seems that there is a conversation to be had here.

With each coming year, independent journalists become more and more indispensable. As local newspapers close at an alarming pace and since half of all newsroom jobs have been lost in the last decade, independent journalists are sometimes the only ones left to cover a story. For example, much of the early footage, images, and news from the January 6th Capitol Riot came directly from independent journalists on the scene. Many also provided important on-the-ground coverage and documentation of numerous protests and of right-wing extremism in the months prior. 

One clear place where the CAI standard can help independent journalists is by protecting the media they produce. Content published online by independent journalists is often stolen,  taken out of context, or maliciously edited to fulfill partisan narratives or distort the reality of the media’s content. In order to get dishonest and harmful content removed, independent journalists are forced to utilize ineffective individual DMCA takedowns or appeals to site administrators on Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook. And, even if the offending content is removed, it’s often not soon enough to prevent spreading whatever narrative their footage was co-opted into. 

By utilizing the CAI standard, independent journalists can verify their content as being the original source, while malicious actors will be unable to do the same. In addition, it creates the same shield for their content as it does for the photos in the archive, being a demonstrable defense against those who view their media as “fake news.”

However, the invaluableness of the stories independent journalists tell comes from, well, their independence. Independent journalists are able to uplift and raise awareness on topics that mainstream media often is unable or unwilling to cover, such as the complex nature of civil unrest in America. They provide a crucial voice for anyone who ever finds themselves excluded from what constitutes “news-worthiness” for larger media corporations. 

Yet, as stated prior, it is also their status as independents that puts them all the more at risk, especially when their stories run counter to established opinion and institutions who have significant stakes in their sides of the narrative. For independent journalists covering issues in American policing, simply the nature of their work can result in the revoking of any protections, as many cities require journalists to register with police and follow their guidelines in order to receive and maintain credentials. 

Thus, we cannot allow media verification to draw a line on what is considered “news-worthy.”  The last thing we should want in trying re-establishing trust in the media and in the news is preventing more people from joining the conversation. If we let verification become just another checkmark hidden behind unviewable and biased algorithms, or blocked behind institutional or financial limits, we would be doing the opposite of that. Unable to verify their content, independent journalists, or anyone trying to tell a story that is not being covered, would face an even steeper wall to gaining credibility.   

Luckily, Starling and CAI seem to understand this both in principle and practice. Their dedication to open-source software and decentralization plainly displays their desire to break barriers, rather than build them. By seeking to start an important conversation on what trust and credibility should mean, they both recognize that such a thing can only come via a plurality of shareholders. 

The reality is that media verification tech can’t fix everything, like the physical risks independent journalists face. Despite this, it seems to establish a solid  jumping-off point to re-establishing some aspect of trust in media. Through them, and the discussions they promote, there is a chance of getting closer  to achieving a new consensus on truth, one that will allow for inclusive definitions of what constitutes authentic media and authentic journalism. 

Stephen Queener is an undergraduate student, studying international relations at Stanford University. In his free time, he follows independent journalists and reads philosophy.