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Fact checking is on the rise, but there are many challenges

politifact-photos-The rise in numbers of fact checking sites around the world – from 44 to 64 in one year – sends a message for accountability journalism. Fact checking veterans and funders of newborn sites, met in London on July 23 and 24 for the second Global Fact-Checking Summit. Lots of lessons emerged, along with advice on how to move forward. But there are unanswered questions to be debated.

On whether to have a rating meter or not

Rating meters became the recognizable stamp for some fact checking sites, as the Washington Post’s Pinocchios or the Pants on Fire from PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter can testify. The percentage of sites using meter systems has grown to about 80 percent, Bill Adair said, but not all choose this path.

The main argument against employing a rating meter is that it risks simplifying a complicated issue. It can also be more open to questioning by critics. On the other hand the meter becomes a very useful summary of deep journalism and it’s sharable even for people who are not going to read condensed policy pieces.

“The meter is also useful as an additional tool that helps you to go back to the content and categorize it; you can track how the story is developing, how the content is changing”, underlined Juan Moreno Romero from El Objectivo in Spain.

If you do choose to have a rating system, the key issue then is how to do it right.

On doing rating right

As Alexios Mantzarlis of Italian Pagella Politica underlined, the rating meter might end up being what will attract the most attention around your work, at least at the beginning, so it’s essential to do it right. The most common advice is to have a clear methodology and definitions of the different rating levels and make them as public and transparent as possible.

On how to respond to criticism

Fact checking easily attracts criticism, mainly from people who don’t like to be fact checked. Laura Zommer from the Argentinian Chequeado and Angie Holan of PolitiFact discussed how to respond to a tidal wave of criticism.

“For our fact check we follow a method that includes several steps and is open to our readers and published on our website: we call/email the person that we are fact checking to have his/her point of view from the beginning; we have a procedure for how to act when we make mistakes; we cover a wide selection of topics and characters; we have a diverse staff, also in terms of ideology, which is particularly important given our very politicized environment; we read each other’s work before publishing it and we are very careful in choosing who we work with and the events we participate in,” Zommer said.

“If you know you made a mistake say it immediately, don’t be afraid” Holan said, explaining that at PolitiFact they have a tag “corrections and updates” that goes on all articles that have been updated, to make them clearly recognizable.

“When we get criticized by someone very prominent we tend to reply, depending on the content of the critic. But sometimes there is nothing to say about that criticism,” Holan added. “Absorb criticism as a group, never personally, don’t let anyone of your team to go home discouraged, the team needs to support each other,” she said.

On how to succeed in being objective in an hostile environment

Fact checking in some contexts is more challenging than elsewhere. That’s certainly the case of Ukraine where alongside a real war, an informational one is also being fought. Tetiana Matychak, editor-in-chief of fact-checking site StopFake shared some advice on how they succeeded in being objective.

  • Verify all the information that comes however truthful it looks
  • Never use opinions or official statements as evidence
  • Debunk fakes coming from both sides of conflict
  • If you cannot debunk a fake, put it aside
  • Cooperate with many journalists and bloggers

On how to make fact checking sustainable: finding new revenue streams

Probably the most debated issue in journalism nowadays is the one about sustainability and revenue streams and fact checkers are no strangers to it. Seventy percent of sites get their funding from nonprofits or foundations, while 17 percent are part of a traditional media organization and only 13 percent are on a profit base, according to a survey of the fact checking organizations at the Summit, conducted by Mantzarlis. Making readers pay, selling the content and selling the expertise are amongst the main alternative sources of revenue for fact-checkers, Mantzarlis highlighted.

Making readers pay in many cases means running crowdfunding campaigns, either for the entire site or for specific projects.

Mevan Babakar shared some lessons UK’s Full Fact learned from successfully running the campaign “Let’s fact check the elections” that raised £33,000 from 1297 backers in February 2015.

“Keep it short, sharp and clear. If you can’t explain the aim of your campaign in one sentence, start again. Use solid example of how you’ll use the money you’ll raise. Don’t underestimate the importance of the marketing campaign.”

Another option to raise money is selling the expertise. Many media companies no longer have the staff or expertise in-house to carry out the time-consuming work of fact checking and that’s when debunking sites can come in and sell their content.