Introducing the News Provenance Project

The Times’s Research & Development team is exploring ways to make the origins of journalistic content clearer to news audiences.

Illustration by Jinhwa Jang

In a time of heightened political polarization and widespread social media use, the prevalence of misinformation online is a persistent problem, with increasingly serious effects on elections and the stability of governments around the world. In addition to false statements published as fact in text and photos that have been manipulated or republished out of context, instances of manipulated video are now on the rise. How should news organizations respond to this crisis?

The news media may not have created this problem, but it is theirs to contend with. More crucially, the audiences for news must navigate an all-too confusing landscape of information and, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, they want the news industry to fix it.

A Product-Centered Approach

Finding solutions that help news readers distinguish material published in good faith from that which is deliberately misleading is no small challenge, and we realize we’re not the first to take it on within a news context. Newsrooms around the world diligently continue to cover the social, political and technological factors that contribute to misinformation and its consequences. Many also now regularly work to debunk false claims, which tend to proliferate more during campaign seasons.

As misinformation tools continue to evolve, so have strategies to identify and avoid it. Some recent standout examples include the Washington Post’s visual explainer of manipulated video and the Wall Street Journal’s creation of a team to help its journalists identify deepfakes. In addition, a number of news-centric nonprofits — including First Draft, which provides guidance in verifying content found on the social web, consortiums like Misinfocon, the Credibility Coalition and many, many others — have emerged to study the issue from a variety of perspectives and provide much-needed research and training.

Beyond these valuable strategies, we feel there is additional potential in exploring how product and technical-level approaches can help. In altering how we produce and present what we publish, news outlets may be able to help readers better understand the tangled landscape of information online, especially on social platforms and messaging apps. What if we could provide them with a meaningful way to differentiate between misleading content and credible news? Earlier this year, The Guardian made such a change to the way the dates of its old articles is displayed, after seeing spikes in traffic on stories about years-old events that had been shared as new, and with incorrect context, on Facebook.

Along those lines, The New York Times Research & Development team is launching The News Provenance Project to experiment with product design and user-facing tools to try to make the origins of journalistic content clearer to our audiences.

Our first project is focused on photojournalism. Because photos can be easily manipulated — and then circulate widely through digital spaces with few brakes applied from social platforms, messaging apps or search engines — we are aiming to learn what happens when we give audiences better insight about the information associated with a news photo published online.

Proving It

To that end, we are approaching this task with a hypothesis: that adding context to images might have a positive or clarifying effect on the wide ecosystem of information published to the web.

Around that hypothesis, we are conducting user research, which we’ll use as the basis for a proof of concept. We’ll test the effectiveness of that proof of concept to find out whether access to that information helps audiences better understand the veracity of professionally produced photojournalism. Some examples of what we hope to learn:

  • Could information about a photo’s digital history help people better understand the way it is produced and published?
  • How much information might be helpful or necessary in sourcing a photo shared outside of its published context?
  • What kinds of metadata — for example, the time and place the photo was captured, the original publisher and caption, the photo’s revision history— might be important to include or prioritize?
  • How helpful might a symbol or watermark be in establishing credibility?
  • How might access to photo metadata change how audiences perceive photos that don’t have metadata?

A Certain Emerging Technology That Starts With ‘B’…

This summer, in addition to conducting user research, we’ll also build a proof-of-concept technical implementation. We believe attributes of blockchain technology show promise in developing a workable solution, so we’ll begin by exploring Hyperledger Fabric, a permissioned and private blockchain framework. We are developing this proof of concept in collaboration with the IBM Garage, which has executed similar projects in other industries.

Why blockchain? Its underlying structure as a “distributed ledger” (a database that is not housed on one set of servers owned and operated by one entity, but by many entities and servers that are kept updated simultaneously) is useful for this project because it makes the records of each change traceable: files are not so much changed as built upon. Any updates to what is published are recorded in a sequential string (or “blocks” in a “chain”) with the string of those changes adding up to create a provenance.

(If you’re are still puzzled about what blockchain even is or how it’s different from cryptocurrencies, we recommend episode 2, season 1 of the excellent ZigZag podcast, this Dealbook explainer and Reuters Graphics’ visual explanation.)

By experimenting with publishing photos on a blockchain, we might in theory provide audiences with a way to determine the source of a photo, or whether it had been edited after it was published.

In exploring the applications of blockchain for photojournalism, we hope to learn more about where and how it may be sensibly used for journalism as a whole.

Other News Organizations Welcome!

We’re working from within The New York Times Company, but not solely on behalf of it. A successful implementation will require collaboration and use among many organizations. To that end, we’ll make what we learn publicly available in the hopes that it may be of interest and of use to other publishers. We would love to have more participants join us in this experimentation — particularly news outlets that publish original photos and that serve different audiences from The Times’s.

If you’re from another news organization and interested in finding out more, please fill out the form at the bottom of this page and we’ll be in touch.

We will be sharing more as we go, so look for future blog posts here, and updates on the project site. In the meantime, we are eager to hear thoughts and reactions from those interested in any aspect of this work.

Sasha Koren is the project lead on The News Provenance Project. Previously, she was the editor and co-lead of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab and held a number of digitally focused roles in The Times newsroom.


Introducing the News Provenance Project was originally published in Times Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: New York Times