Cologne, 08/15/2019

Tracking Down the Truth In the World Of News

Subject: Employees
Country: Germany
Category: Project

RTL Group’s “User-Generated Content Verification Team” is tasked with checking and verifying the authenticity of pictures and news in social networks. Now here: the article on the team’s work, originally published in Bertelsmann’s new CR magazine.

They meticulously work to verify whether images and news stories are genuine and factually accurate. What drives the producers, editors, and reporters on RTL Group’s User-Generated Content Verification Team? An article on this topic was just published in Bertelsmann’s new Corporate Responsibility magazine  - and you can now read it here as well.

Munich, July 22, 2016: At the Olympia shopping mall, an 18-year-old student opens fire, killing nine people and seriously injuring five more. Photos and video allegedly showing the victims and suspected attacker rapidly go viral online. A news editor at RTL Television checks the user-generated content and its primary sources. The result: Two thirds of the pictures don’t even show the Munich shopping mall, but malls in England and South Africa. And the first snapshot of the alleged attacker? It shows YouTube comedian Sam Hyde, not the Munich perpetrator.

Verified Facts Build Trust

This fact-checking, carried out on the initiative of an individual employee, marked the birth of the User-Generated Content Verification Team (Verification Team). At its inception in 2016, the team consisted of ten men and women committed to verifying the authenticity of images and news carried on social networks. Today, the virtual team is made up of 75 volunteers from across the RTL Group. They are producers, editors, network reporters and media documentarians– like Sergej Maier, who says he “simply enjoys” using digital tools to check the facts “because it helps you deep-dive into a topic.” Producer Robert Clausen shares Maier’s enthusiasm: “Like a detective, you’re always looking for facts.” Content Manager Juri Biekehör, who works at the New York bureau of Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland, cites additional reasons: “I’ve expanded my skills and learned how to use new tools – all new and useful knowledge. It’s terrific experience.” His Cologne colleague, Stephan Große, is driven by something else: “Researching is my passion,” he says. And Florian Gerick sums up what probably goes for the entire team: “It’s my aspiration as a journalist to report factually and honestly. That’s the only way to build trust.” But facts are often recklessly jeopardized in the digital world. Today, anyone can use a smartphone to disseminate photos or videos on the internet – and mislead the public with false claims. There are reasons for this: “It’s so easy to make emotionally charged declarations on Facebook, Twitter, etc., these days that, at first, the authenticity of the content isn’t even questioned,” explains Andreas Greuel, who heads the Verification Team. The consequences are daily disinformation such as fabricated reports, errors or direct lies – in brief: fake news. But Greuel, whose full-time position is Head of the Verification Team at infoNetwork, doesn’t really like this term: “If a claim is demonstrably wrong, it should be described as what it is, namely a fraud, a manipulation, or an error.”

Accuracy Is the Best Advertisement

The number of requests to the Verification Team from editorial offices across the RTL Group is increasing. That’s why Gruner + Jahr’s stern magazine is on board as a cooperation partner. Since summer 2017, approximately 25 editors, mainly from the online division, have been actively supporting the research and helping to thoroughly and reliably check the submitted content. The Hamburg-based magazine then passes the gained knowledge on to its readers. “The fact that we make our research processes and results available in a transparent manner has been welcomed and has strengthened confidence in our daily work,” says Moritz Dickentmann, SEO Editor at “So far, our assessments have been correct,” says Greuel. “Our accuracy is our best advertising.” Over the past two and a half years, the team has processed between 500 and 600 inquiries. “Essentially, we check every request.” Among them, a video supposedly showing Thai divers rescuing children from a cave – they were actually French divers carrying out a training course. Other checks include an alleged letter of confession, a bomb explosion in front of the American embassy in Beijing, and even a celebrity’s lip implants.

Say, for instance, Punkt 12’s editorial staff submits a request. It is forwarded by email to the entire Verification Team and processed by a member who has the time or is particularly interested in the topic. For former tennis reporter Florian Gerick, it’s sports; for Russian-speaking Sergej Maier, it’s news from Russia or Ukraine; and for New York employee Yuri Biekehör, it’s U.S. breaking news. “We usually need about two hours to provide a corroborated, verified assessment of images, videos, or news,” says Greuel, who not only leads the team but also trains its members. “Sometimes it can take longer, however.” Any RTL Group employee can become a member of the Verification Team. “The most important prerequisite is having a lot of curiosity,” says Greuel, describing the job’s requirements. “You should also have a good understanding of technology and good spatial imagination. Also, you need to be able to put your personal opinions to the side.” Robert Clausen explains why the last point is so important: “For starters, we don’t believe anything – no matter what the source! We focus only on what we’re looking at in the image or video and question everything: from the weather to the time, to the shadows, the clothes, the buildings, and the street signs.” Then the reverse search for the primary sources begins. All available online tools are used for this purpose. “We can have as many as 30 tabs open on our screens during research,” says team leader Greuel, “and if we still can’t find the answer, we call an expert.”

Editors Appreciate the Added Value

Such research involves an extensive effort – and for good reason: “Everyone in the team is aware of their great responsibility because our interpretations, assessments, and research influence program content and thus, our viewers,” explains Greuel. It can even happen that pre-produced or scheduled broadcasts are cancelled if the footage’s content cannot be verified. But that, of course, is precisely what the editors appreciate, “because for them we serve as backup and first responders, so to speak, in assessing the veracity of news and stories.” The Verification Team’s work has triggered further impetus: “Public attention to user-generated content on social media has increased enormously – especially in the case of viral stories.” Maybe that’s why the Verification Team is so important for the solidarity of the editorial teams within the RTL Group. “No one wants to broadcast news that isn’t correct. If it does happen, it creates a problem not only for the journalist and the editorial team, but possibly for the entire industry. This awareness makes everyone on the Verification Team happy to contribute to avoiding it.” And this is only possible because the editorial departments have recognized the huge value added by the team, says Greuel. “They give their employees the necessary freedom to work in our team. Otherwise, none of this would be possible.”