The video footage was stark and harrowing. Along a riverbank, scores of people lined up – so desperate to get across that some crammed into small boats while others took their chances trying to swim.
The people were members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and they were trying to cross the river en route to Bangladesh to escape national troops trying to quash an insurgency.
The moment was captured by one of the fleeing Rohingya – a man Reuters journalist Simon Lewis had met over the WhatsApp messaging service several weeks earlier. When the man finally reached safety in Bangladesh, Lewis met him in person and found out he had shot video of his family’s journey.
At a time when user-generated content – video clips and photos shot by private individuals, not journalists – is becoming more widely used, it is crucial to verify the images. It can be done by analyzing them for background, angles of shadows and landmarks. In this case, Lewis had worked for months to build a trusting relationship to ensure the images were authentic and not doctored.
They had first made contact in early August when the man and his family were trying to figure out how to escape the government forces, which critics say are persecuting the Rohingya and preventing international aid from reaching them.
The WhatsApp relationship enabled the man to provide Lewis updates on the aid restrictions and on military activities where he lived. Their village was far from any insurgent activity, so it was relatively peaceful. But when some surrounding villages were burned, they decided to head to the border. The man sent still photographs along the entire journey.
Lewis met him in a teashop in Bangladesh, close to where he was staying in a relative’s cramped house. The two had a long conversation.
“At the end, I asked him if he shot any video during the journey, at which point he started showing me the videos,” Lewis recalled. “He talked me through what was happening in each one, and told me when and where they were shot. I had gained his trust enough for him to agree to transfer them to me.” He also agreed Reuters could use the footage exclusively.
Lewis, who has worked for four years in Myanmar, is familiar with northern Rakhine, where the video was shot. Still, he spent hours verifying the images and details provided by his source and looking over the maps of the Maungdaw area he keeps on his phone. Ultimately, Lewis concluded the material met the Reuters standard for “reliable news.”