OCCRP: Unreported
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OCCRP: Unreported

OCCRP’s Fact-Checking Process: ‘The First Time is Torture for Everyone Involved’

Our head of fact-checking explains what it takes to get an investigation over the finish line and published at OCCRP

Getting an investigation published at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) is challenging. The stories are complex, the reporting can take months, and the subjects are sometimes dangerous. But what many journalists don’t expect — until they’ve lived through it — is how hard it is to pass through OCCRP’s legendarily rigorous fact-checking process.

“Even today, after two and a half years in the organization, it is still the hardest, most complex and exhausting stage of the editing process. One in which sometimes you want to die. And also one of the most important,” says OCCRP Latin America Editor Nathan Jaccard.

While most other publications stick to checking the major points of a story, OCCRP has adopted an obsessively scrupulous standard that has become a defining trait for the organization. Every single fact, no matter how small, is assessed for accuracy by a team of no-nonsense multilingual fact-checkers who have developed a formidable reputation.

“The first time is torture for everyone involved,” says Birgit Brauer, the head of fact-checking at OCCRP. A journalist with more than two decades of experience at outlets like The Economist, the Associated Press, and the New York Times, she “fell into” the fact-checking role at OCCRP almost four years ago and is known for being tough on copy and, by extension, reporters.

Birgit Brauer, head of fact-checking at OCCRP

“At OCCRP, fact-checking isn’t an afterthought, it’s a key step in the publication process,” she says.

“Of course, we check the key facts that are typical in an OCCRP follow-the-money investigation, like bank transactions, corrupt politicians and their connections, and the sequence of events,” Brauer explains. “But it’s the small, seemingly innocuous stuff that surprises reporters sometimes.”

For example, if a reporter describes a scene, they need to show proof for every part of the description. Ideally they’d be able to produce photographs — not necessarily to publish, but to satisfy the fact-checking team. In one case, Brauer recalls quizzing a new reporter who described a factory with a rusty fence. “‘How do you know it’s rusty?’ I asked. We spent a lot of time looking for the proof and verifying the rust.”

OCCRP’s initial goal when it set up its fact-checking department was to ward off any possibility of an error, large or small, that could open the organization up to a lawsuit or an accusation of biased reporting. But amid the proliferation of online dis- and misinformation over the past several years, the process has taken on a new importance. OCCRP has found that an uncompromising standard for accuracy builds trust between its newsroom and its readers.

The example of the rusty fence might seem like a minor point, Brauer explains, but if a reader lives near the factory and knows the fence isn’t rusty, they’ll question whether anything in the story is true.

Julia Wallace, OCCRP’s deputy editor in chief, says the organization has the most arduous fact-checking procedure she’s ever come across.

“I’ve found that fact-checking enhances the journalistic process in ways I wouldn’t have expected,” she says. “Having to justify every word in every sentence makes our reporters and editors think differently. When we write for OCCRP we can’t cut corners, and knowing how committed OCCRP is to being honest with its readers means that we have to be honest with ourselves, too.”

OCCRP publishes more than 100 investigations a year and works with journalists on five continents, so its fact-checking team — two full-time staffers and up to six other part-time fact-checkers — is busy around the clock and around the globe. Since source documents can come from anywhere in the world, Brauer tries to make sure that her team members are a diverse crew who can work in multiple languages. She speaks five languages herself.

OCCRP’s fact-checkers are all trained journalists, often working at the organization’s member centers in places like Serbia and Moldova, Wallace notes. Since they might spend days wrestling with the source documents for a story, they often provide editors with useful insights about the material alongside factual corrections.

Reporters working with OCCRP sometimes underestimate how long it will take to fact-check their stories. If they have all the required documentation and have properly annotated the text, it can take as little as two or three days. But if they are missing proofs or were imprecise in attaching them to the story, it can drag on for weeks.

Other hard-and-fast OCCRP rules include not relying on the reporting of others, instead providing original documentation, which OCCRP is increasingly making available to readers on its platform. Reporters are required to research and verify any substantive facts in an OCCRP story, such as an indictment, conviction, or jail sentence.

Known as OCCRP’s “special forces,” fact-checkers are often the most disliked people in news organizations and can be dreaded by reporters, but they are also deeply appreciated. “It can be a love-hate relationship, but it’s always interesting,” says Brauer of interactions between checkers and reporters. “Some people fight for every sentence and I love that, but they have to put up a good fight and come up with the proof.”

“Beyond the blood and tears,” Latin America Editor Jaccard concurs, “fact-checking is very hard, it makes you go through all kinds of feelings, but in the end, it gives you peace of mind and a shield that is worth all the sacrifices.”

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