On public journalism and fact-checking

One of the good things about the 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia was the direct participation of the public. Ultimately, ‘the audience’ is the most important element of any journalistic endeavor. At many journalism conferences that I attended in recent years, the access was ‘exclusively’ for reporters and editors. Discussions often very focused on the ‘upstream’ elements of the production of news stories. Perugia was different.

“The old and new ecosystems are so different that it is necessary to rethink every aspect of the model. We owe it to ourselves.”

In Perugia, all seminars were open to the public. There was no entrance fee and it was not uncommon to see long queues. Clearly, many people in Perugia were keen to engage, not just on topics such as cooking and the mafia. Window decorations with the #ijf14 hashtag in stores downtown also made clear that the people of this university town broadly embraced this journalism festival as ‘theirs’, just as the city’s annual jazz and chocolate festivals.

In our social media age, this ‘downstream public dimension’ is worth exploring further. Any citizen, any person with the proper mindset, skills and increasingly ubiquitous mobile media tools can produce media content and work as a journalist. Crowd-funding is a factor – there are good examples of successful crowd-funded media, such as De Correspondent in the Netherlands. And crowd-sourcing was regularly mentioned as a horizontal topic in many different sessions, especially in those on data-driven journalism and social media.

With more and more people producing content, the need for increased emphasis on verification and fact-checking is apparent. Twitter is rapidly becoming a crucial tip-off service to news media such as The Guardian and CNN. (See previous post.) Newsrooms can deploy special news algorithms to monitor patterns in social media that may point to breaking news. Social media verification is becoming an essential skill not just for journalists but anyone sharing information online. (See another previous post.) Fact-checking is becoming increasingly relevant.

Facts about fact-checking

“Fact-checking is a relatively new movement in journalism,” said Bill Adair (@BillAdairDuke) of Duke University, founder of Politifacts.com, a Pullitzer-prize winning initiative in the United States. “I’m proud to be part of it, and am passionate about. Fact-checking is growing around the world.”

At Saturday’s IJF14 session on fact-checking – considered as a ‘dry-run’ for a conference on this topic in London this summer – Adair explained he got into this line of journalism “out of guilt as a journalist covering the Bush era”.

Some facts about fact-checking according to Adair: It is costly and time-consuming. It is not profitable. It is public service journalism. And it is not going to make a profit.

“Fact-checking is controversial. It manages to make everybody mad,” said Bill Adair.

“We have to get people in journalism to realize that this is every bit as important as investigative journalism. Editors loose interest after election day, but politicians do not stop lying.”

New EU fact-checking platform

In Europe, several fact-checking services are now up and running, including -Full-facts- in the United Kingdom and Pagella Politica in Italy. The Italian service rapidly became popular in during the latest elections. Based on this success, the people behind this initiative have recently also created a European fact-checking service FactcheckEU.org. This service has obtained funding from the Mercator association in Germany up to the end of May, just after the European elections. In Perugia it was not clear if the service will be able to sustain itself after the elections, but let’s hope it does.

“There was no pan-European fact-checking platform,” said Pietro Curatolo (@PietroCuratolo), one of the founders of FactCheckEU. “This was both a challenge and an opportunity. We did not want to create a platform just for the Eurobubble. The idea was to reach a broader audience that was not following the EU on a daily basis. Our ambition is not only to be a watchdog, but also to create more awareness for EU politics. We hope it will contribute to a European demos and raise awareness of European issues.”

FactCheckEU now is available in six languages, and is crowd-sourced. People can submit their own fact-checks and can contribute to the translations.

“Linking it to the crowd creates a sense of ownership,” said Curatolo, “Users can rate each other based on the quality of their contributions. They can help translate into different languages. The idea is to make the campaign for elections more engaging. We hope the interest will not wane and that we can take forward fact-checking and make it increasingly a pan-European effort.”

‘Insane whopper’ or ‘True’

FactCheckEU rates claims with one of five labels: True, Almost, 50/50, Rather Daft, and, if the claim can not be supported, ‘Insane Whopper.’

Take a look at some of the ‘trending’ fact-checks. Statements on the ‘Delors Myth,’ claiming national legislation in EU countries largely depend on EU directives, by French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and British MEP Nigel Farage give both of them a status as ‘Insane Whopper’.

FactCheckEU is also analyzing statements made the candidates for the post of European Commission president during their 28 April debate in Maastricht.

Getting claims corrected

British fact-checking service Full Fact, which launched in 2010, is not crowd-sourced, but managed by journalists.

“We fact-check claims rather than people. We check pressure groups, the media and politicians,” said Full Fact director Will Moy (@puzzlesthewill) at the IJF seminar.

“Our emphasis is on getting claims corrected. We will if necessary go to readers’ editors and the advertising standards authority. Where we see patterns we look at what systemic changes are needed to change these patterns.”

Full Fact is available via the website fullfact.org. If you are reading this in Brussels, make sure to check their Europe page, at https://fullfact.org/europe/, where they have analyzed the party-political broadcasts of the main political groups in the United Kingdom.

There is no denying that it is good that these fact-checking services are around. They contribute to a clean debate, although it often takes some time for facts to be checked. In some cases that may be too late to make a real difference.

What’s more, journalistic fact-checking should not be limited to claims made by politicians. In a policy-arena such as the one surrounding the European Union, claims made by all participants, including NGOs and the private sector, should be checked.

Social media are giving all of us the opportunity to put information ‘out there’, disinformation as well as checked, verified factual data. Only objectively verified information should be permitted to shape debates.

Making sure that these debate remain clean is a worthy public service that journalism can provide.

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