Why fact-checking is (or should be) the future of journalism
By Job Boonstra
It was the thing everyone in the news business was talking about during the 2012 elections. Over a period of several months every self-respecting news program had to have a team of journalists fact-checking claims by politicians and members of parliament, but it turned out to be nothing more than a hype. And that’s a shame, because fact-checking should be the future of journalism.
Journalism has a problem. A problem that needs to be solved quickly for journalism still to exist in twenty years. The problem? Citizens’ trust in the media is in decline. According to a 2013 study by Dutch bureau of statistics, CBS, little over thirty percent of the Dutch population had trust in the media. That’s in sharp contrast to the scores of institutions like the judiciary and even the police force — both a little shy of 70%.
Not only media in the Netherlands are coping with this problem. A recent study by American research and consulting company Gallup found that in 2014 just one in four Americans had a ‘fair amount’ of confidence in mass media. This ties 2014 and 2012 for the lowest level in Gallup’s trend.
“According to a 2013 study by Dutch bureau of statistics, CBS, little over thirty percent of the Dutch population had trust in the media.”
Honestly, I cannot blame the Dutch for not having a great deal of confidence in mass media and their role in reporting on news events. Too many times media seem biased, incomplete or just plainly wrong when covering social or political stories.
An historical error was made when several newspapers reported on the accident of the Titanic. “All Titanic Passengers are safe; transferred in lifeboats at sea”, The Evening Sun from Baltimore read. Sadly, this wasn’t true.
‘UP STOLE THIS’
More recently, press agency Associated Press suspected rival United Press of simply copying AP press releases. The agency made up a story of an Indian rebel leader called Siht El Otspueht, but the message was only sent to UP via wire where it was copied and sent to all associated newspapers.
After numerous titles with a UP subscription ran the story, AP told them to inverse the name of the rebel leader. It read ‘The UP stole this’. It’s a hilarious anecdote, but it goes to show how often journalistic values are neglected in the heat of the moment when a big story breaks.
Another area where journalism often falls short is in providing readers with the context needed to understand what’s happening around them. Often news can be true, but in the light of events it can mean something vastly different. Only last week for example, news broke that ten U.S. marines had been detained by Iran.
“After numerous titles with an UP subscription ran the story, AP told them to inverse the name of the rebel leader. It read ‘The UP stole this’.”
Presidential candidate Jeb Bush immediately blamed Obama for his ‘humiliatingly weak’ Iran policy and conservative MSNBC cable news host Joe Scarborough told Iran via Twitter they had ‘exactly 300 days left to push a U.S. president around’, pointing at the days Obama has left in office. U.S. government officials on the contrary, had already stated that the sailors would soon be released.
Only hours later it became clear that the ten had drifted into Iranian waters after their boats developed mechanical problems. The Iranian government immediately made clear that the sailors would soon be released, which they indeed were. Blaming Obama’s supposedly weak foreign policy was too easy and unfair. As expected, Iran detained the sailors merely as a part of a routine check.
The problem is that mistakes like these just happen too often and can have a big impact on people’s trust in the media in general. I know, journalism will always be the result of human labour and so errors can never be ruled out, but if we can marginalize the number of mistakes being made, maybe the media will be truly trustworthy.
Issues of the day
One of the areas the media are very good at is debunking myths and stories that smell and putting events in a broader perspective so that people with less knowledge in that particular field can assess these events in a more balanced, objective manner. In short: journalists should consider fact-checking as their primary objective.
Luckily, various newspapers and magazines are already familiar with the concept of fact-checking. Dutch newspaper NRC Next runs a daily rubric called Next.checkt in which stories by other newspapers are checked and debunked, with often hilarious and embarrassing results.
On the other side of the pond, Vox.com often focuses on dividing facts from fiction, for example in a recent article about the detainment of ten U.S. sailors mentioned earlier. However, too often stories are just simply copied from news agencies. Also, there is too little time for a thorough read through, and the existing fact-check rubrics are small.
“Too often stories are just simply copied from news agencies.”
But there is hope on the horizon. When it comes to giving context to the news, things have changed a lot over the last five years. More and more journalism start-ups are solely dedicated to giving context to the world. Take De Correspondent for example, a Dutch startup by Rob Wijnberg which has a very clear objective: to go past the issues of the day.
Together with a number of correspondents, each reporting on issues they consider important, Wijnberg is building a platform not focusing on the latest news, but rather on the background of big issues in the world.
Media like these are on the rise, but De Correspondent is still the exception to the rule. Of course this has a lot to do with money, or the lack thereof, but with a radically changing way of consuming news and the growing number of people who are willing to pay for quality content, things could be changing very quickly very soon.
Platforms mainly checking facts and providing context will never completely replace established media like CNN and BBC, focusing on bringing news as quickly as possible, but they can be a very healthy antidote to — quoting De Correspondent once again- the issues of the day.
Also, because De Correspondent, Vox and Next.checkt are providing context, they apply to the main objective of journalism, according to The Elements of Journalism, saying that journalism should provide citizens the information they need to make the best possible decisions in their life, at their work, etc.
When journalism can return to that essence, maybe we can make mass media more reliable again. And maybe that hype of fact-checking during the 2012 elections wasn’t just a hype.