03. A century of fact-checking /
Along with source protection, fact-checking is the foundation of what is called journalistic ethics. This is a set of rules and duties that the media impose on themselves in the course of their work.
An attempt at formalisation was made in 1971 in the Declaration of the Duties and Rights of Journalists, known as the Munich Charter, adopted by the unions of six European countries.
Source protection, respect for the privacy of individuals, a ban on plagiarism and defamation… the duties listed are essential. But all flow from the first of them: ‘Respect the truth, whatever the consequences… for the public has a right to know the truth.’ Fact-checking, which tests the veracity of a statement or other information, is therefore one of the pillars of journalism. But that hasn’t always been the case, at least under that term.
As the name suggests, fact-checking as a fully fledged professional practice was born in American newsrooms. The term was coined in the 1920s. In 1923, Time Magazine was the first to create a team of fact checkers to verify the facts contained in the magazine’s pages, many of which were devoted to investigative work. There are still some fact checkers of this type, especially to verify the facts contained in major investigations, but this traditional conception of the profession is tending today to fade in favour of what we know today.
In the 1990s, fact-checking experienced a first revolution. Some journalists did specialise in verifying statements by politicians, and claimed the title fact checkers. The second revolution in the profession is linked to two factors: the democratisation of the Internet and September 11, 2001.
The advent of a technology allowing everyone to publish information without being subject to ethical rules considerably increased the mass of false information in circulation.
As for the attack on the World Trade Center, it gave rise to a profusion of conspiracy theories, fuelled by the 9/11 Truth Movement, which doubts the official version of events. Journalists therefore got organised, and responded by creating websites dedicated entirely to fact-checking, such as Factcheck.org in 2003, or Politifact in 2007.
Several specialised sites then appeared: Africacheck in 2012, Gomaneh in Iran in 2013, Fatabyyano, active in the Arab world since 2014, Boom in India the same year, again Teyit in Turkey in 2016. Today, there are an estimated 300-plus sites specialising in fact-checking all over the world. Many of them are part of the international fact-checking network of the American NGO Poynter, launched in 2015 to support the development of these media.
Since the emergence and structuring of this new practice, many criticisms have emerged. For some experts, focusing too much on the facts is giving them importance they may not deserve. And by creating special fact-checking columns, the media may give the impression that they don’t necessarily check everything that is written in the rest of their articles.
Other critics focus more on the relative effectiveness of fact-checking. For proponents of the ‘post-truth era’ fact-checking is pointless, since the truth itself no longer carries any weight in a world where beliefs and emotions take precedence.
However, and as we have seen, fact-checking must be at the heart of our work as journalists, and can in many cases have a positive impact on the society in which it operates.
A CFI project in partnership with France Médias Monde