Journalism and fact-checking

06. Media and fact-checking, a complex relationship /

Since the early 2000s, fact-checking has become a media discipline in its own right. A number of newsrooms now have a department devoted to checking information, and a host of dedicated websites have sprung up all over the world.

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

Often we are 99.9% certain that something is false or misleading, but we lack a source to confirm it. In these cases, you mustn’t publish. The quality and credibility of fact-checking stems from being absolutely sure of what you’re saying.

In 2010 fact-checking first appeared in the USA in the newsrooms of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

At first it was about checking the veracity of what politicians or political leaders were saying, initially in the United States, then in France. Over the last 3 or 4 years, the discipline has changed. We always check political statements, but given the extraordinary proliferation of disinformation on social media, with photos or videos taken out of context or sometimes doctored, fact-checkers now do a lot of work online, on public figures, whether political or not, and on a great many anonymous contributors.

In 2016, two events proved decisive in the history of fact-checking: the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

Those two major events in political life demonstrated a level of disinformation which may or may not have been decisive in determining the outcome of the elections but definitely played a major role in both campaigns. In my opinion, it really was a wake-up call in a lot of newsrooms, which either began fact-checking or stepped up their commitment to it.

Grégoire Lemarchand says citizen journalism is able to play a part in a journalist’s fact-checking.

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

Non-journalists give us the heads-up about dubious claims, providing information and background material, which helps us a lot. Sometimes, we even make direct appeals, like: “We have this photo, we are trying to locate it. Where and when was it taken?” People will often pass on the correct information, and are engaged in fact-checking without realising it. For example, we have a rule for our journalists: when faced with a questionable post, check out the comments, which will often refute what’s been said and redirect you towards corroborative information. That can really be a great help. Journalists have know-how, expertise, and professional ethics, but that doesn’t mean they are the only ones with knowledge. On the contrary, the general public and amateur journalists can be very useful to us when checking information.  

Is there a difference between a journalist and a journalist fact-checker?

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

What sets fact-checking specialists apart today is that they are operating in the digital terrain, a vast landscape full of pitfalls. You don’t need to be an ultra-geek or a coder, there aren’t journalists on the dark web, constantly coding. Of course you can code but that’s not the main thing, it’s more about being comfortable on social networks and on the web, knowing how to use open-source tools, which are free and accessible to all, and mastering the art of detailed research using search engines, platforms, and social networks. It is also about visual verification, using tools such as Google Maps or Google Earth.

Suspicion of everything and be patience: the main qualities required by a fact-checker in identifying misinformation.

Grégoire Lemarchand – Journalist – AFP – France

A successful fact-checking exercise one in which readers themselves can replicate the background work. For example, if it is claimed that a photo was taken in Paris 2 weeks ago, whereas it was taken in Spain 3 years ago, we need to be able to show how and why we know it was taken in Spain. As we are sometimes addressing people who mistrust the media, we do not use “off” sources, i.e. people who are reliable but who wish to remain anonymous for some reason. That’s not to say such information should never be used, it’s useful and we would never have had sensational investigations like Watergate without “off” sources. But for fact-checking purposes, we only use “on”. So we don’t say “according to close friends” but quote a spokesperson directly. Fact-checking a documentary such as Hold-Up takes time. It lasts 2 hours 40 so we had several journalists working on it. Rather than do nothing and say: “This is all conspiracy theory, ignore it,” we took the time to be educational and quote experts, who explain why the video contains a lot of false information. It is important to be as transparent and educational as possible.

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