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23.09.2016

Word is bond? Fact-checkers raise question mark 

by Pauline Betche

Media is touted as the check on politicians, public processes and discourses. Being confronted with this high position of functioning as the “fourth estate”, conscientious and professional journalists should report correctly. But in our digital age, this role isn’t always played well.

Fact-checking_900X600 Actual humans are still the best bet for fact-checking. (Photo and art: ECPMF)

The Internet represents both instigation of inaccuracy and the combat against it. Today’s speed-driven journalism demands finding the balance between informing people as soon as possible and research and appropriately checking one’s facts. The use of quotation marks is often a popular way out of the dilemma.

Fact-checking organisations dig deeper and shed some light on arguments. However, fact-checkers are not necessarily the “better journalists”.

Naturally, fact-checking doesn’t have to coincide with journalism. In an interview with the ECPMF, Zdeněk Jirsa, project manager of the Czech fact-checking website Demagog.cz, states that they don’t claim to be journalists. Mainly students and scientists work for the project.

He points out that fact-checking “should be a crucial part of journalist’s work. But on the other hand, it doesn’t need to be done by journalists themselves”.

Fact-checkers hit back against false information

Now, fact-checking organisations are becoming even more popular. They use the Internet as a distribution channel to spread newly gained knowledge about the correctness of published words. Claiming to be an independent instance of proof-readers, they investigate on political statements, journalistic reports and rumours.

Fact-checkers operate in very different contexts and professional levels. In 2003, the “grandfather of the movement”, FactCheck.org, was launched as the first serious fact-checker in the US. Their agenda focused on fighting against false information spread by politicians. Other groups soon started to fact-check political statements all over the world in real-time and post hoc.

Also in Europe, fact-checking projects have entered the media landscape to proof published statements. But they don’t necessarily act as the control panel for journalists who do their work badly. Fact-checkers see themselves as a complement for media workers, rather than as a replacement.

Hijacking the term “fact-checker”

However, not everyone who calls his or herself a “fact-checker” may bear this name. Sounding irrefutable, the term is also used by partisans and for opinion-making purposes.

Alexios Mantzarlis leads the informal International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). In an ECPMF interview, he criticises the misuse of the term: “Organisations are putting ‘fact check’ in the header even if what they are doing is a far cry from fact-checking. In some countries, partisan groups have hijacked the term to wrap their views in a seemingly impartial cloak of respectability.” 

Mantzarlis explains how media users can set the good apart from the bad:

This is a free world, so if a partisan hack wants to call himself a fact-checker so be it. If the sources aren't listed, if you can't tell who is fact-checking and who is paying for the fact-checking then you should take the conclusions with a pinch of salt.”

“Fact-checking should have globally set standards”

On 15 September, the IFCN and 36 other organisations agreed on a code of principles to develop a reliable guide for fact-checking. Among the code’s signatories is TurkeyAndFacts: Ferdi Ferhat Özsoy, co-founder of the organization, compares this code to a “Hippocratic Oath” and is convinced that it is essential to their work.

To bring the different approaches and working methods together, the agreement primarily sets the focus on transparency of sources, methodology, funding and organisation. Everyone who reads the fact-checker’s reports should be able to retrace how conclusions were drawn.

The Czech fact-checker Zdeněk Jirsa says that the main reason for the code of principles “simply derives from the belief that fact-checking should have globally set standards.”

As information and reports are spread in global networks, their subjects may be harmed. Ferdi Ferhat Özsoy points out to the ECPMF that “today the audience of politicians and news in general reach a far greater number of readers and followers, thus simple mistakes can discredit their work or political standing.”

Does truth even matter?

Assuming fact-checkers find out the truth at all, are their voices even heard?

Lucas Graves, author of the book “Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism”, concludes that the public has partly become indifferent to falsehood and rather believes the “fact” that verifies their world views instead of questioning the published reports.

Additionally, “truth” is not only black or white. In many cases, especially in hypothetical and future-oriented questions, statements and messages can’t be judged that easily.

So do politicians lie less if they know they’re going to be fact-checked? This preventive effect “can be a little overestimated sometimes”, Zdeněk Jirsa thinks. “Even in such cases you have politicians that would rather discredit the fact-checker than acknowledge mistake.”

In the end, people still want to be informed as fast as possible – and that’s the task of journalists. Fact-checking doesn’t make the work of journalists superfluous, because reporting is not only built on facts and figures, but also on contextualising, commenting and critical questioning. This is nothing facts can do themselves. But they are an essential basis for correct publishing and if they perish, the “true words” do likewise.






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