by Niamh Kirk
Google’s new fact-checked feature highlights the importance and growth of the international fact-checking community. But there is still no formal, independent organisation in Ireland, we are missing out.
What are fact-checkers?
They are organisations or groups that aim to stop the spread of misinformation in the news media. When inaccurate, misleading or unsubstantiated claims are published or broadcast, fact-checkers step in to correct the record. They highlight the error and provide links to the original information sources offering a more accurate view of the issue being discussed.
There are countless misleading stories published in the news every day for a wide range of reasons. It can be about celebrities like whether Kanye West cancelled a concert because a wheelchair user wouldn’t stand up to applaud him, (nope) or whether that guy’s name really was Phuck dat Bich (also nope). Misinformation appears as selective statistics that are reproduced from political and company press releases, maybe taken out of context, it comes from dubious surveying of consumers for marketing purposes like whether BMW drivers are really not let out as much as other car owners (oh-please) or the misunderstanding of published findings in science journals. There are also hoaxes; some detailed in the documentary Starsuckers which later The Sun’s Gordon Smart defended publishing in the Leveson Inquiry.
Fact-checks are not there to attack journalists, newspapers or politicians. Their efforts are for the audience to ensure they have the best information available and to develop tools and resources to prevent misinformation happening in the first place. They are only interested in the claim made and not in the person or production process that led to it. It is often described as consumer rights for news consumers.
They tend to acknowledge that there are many areas that they cannot fact-check because how news is gathered is sometimes a private operation. But when it comes to publicly available data and reports, in areas such as health, environment, science reporting, business and judiciary, there are many areas issues that can and are reported out of context or inaccurately. Some fact-checkers even take on claims that are made by other public influencers such as musicians and actors.
Fact-checkers also take requests from the public and interested parties as well as taking on issues of public interest themselves.
Don’t the newspapers or regulators do this anyway?
During election time many news titles in Ireland have run fact-checking efforts, checking the claims that the politicians make. TheJournal.ie have a full time fact-check section and were also fact-checking in real time and using social media during the live election debates. And more of the efforts of Irish organisations were detailed by Alexios Mantzarlis in Poynter ahead of the general election.
But the independent organisations dedicated to fact-checks are not just about responding to claims made by politicians but most importantly they examine the claims that news producers make or report. They look at daily news, features, investigations and opinion articles.
Research shows that information is regularly mismanaged by news titles for a range of reasons. Scientific findings can be distorted when rewritten for a general audience, statistics misinterpreted, findings in reports decontextualized and complex issues overly simplified to render them incorrect. In an age where news organisation are also relying on user-generated content sourced from social media, the quality of the information that audiences are exposed to have never been a more important concern.
There are limitations on the news reporting process that shapes information to meet certain news values, purposes and the demands of meeting public interests. Information must be timely, proximate, relevant to the audience, simple enough to understand, is possible, complete.
Along with this, the pressures of the 24-hour digital news cycle has prompted a shift in the ideology when it comes to truth and accuracy. Many journalist and editors now believe that publishing ‘the best information they have at the time’ is sufficient to pass to the public. The story can change and they believe the audience knows this. Many other news titles believe that it is best to be second with the story and right than to be first and wrong.
There is an ongoing ideological tension between getting it out first and being correct.
What about the regulator?
Regulators in Ireland (and elsewhere) are problematic in that they are limited to evaluating the content of certain news titles and respond to only complaints made by those directly affected by a news item. So someone or group mentioned in an article or broadcast piece. Their remit is restricted and they cannot intervene when general misinformation is published and being reproduced. It has to affect someone, or group, or company directly.
The independence of fact-checkers is important
Neutrality in a debate is important, not just in political debates but in any debate that is mediated through the press. It does not matter if it the reporting of claims that politicians make about the health service or the value of jewels that were stolen in a robbery. Newspapers are writing an important part of our historical record in all aspects of life.
The neutral position of the organisation is important for public trust. They often develop strong safeguards against any potential influences on members such as restrictions on political activities and around the organisations fundraising efforts.
What can be done for Ireland?
In the UK and the US the independent fact-checking organisations take on different forms. The UK’s Fullfact is a charity and survives on donations and fundraising. In the US Politifact is a project run by the Tampa Bay Times and its partner news organisations and Snopes revenue comes from advertising. It is possible that the same or a mixture so other models could be tried in Ireland. It is possible that it could receive some form of state funding, either as an NGO or through enterprise schemes.
During the General Election 2016, a crowdsourced fact-check was trailed with some minor success and this could be developed with the support of volunteers.
In the meantime, you can use the UK and US based fact checks such a Snopes which cover a wide range of news, Politifact in the US, Fullfact in the UK and FactCheckNI in Northern Ireland. News producers TheJournal.ie also host a fact-check on their site and on Twitter.