My opening remarks at the Global Fact-Checking Summit at City University London, July 23, 2015:
This is an exciting time for fact-checking around the world.
A year ago, we had 44 active fact-checking groups. Today we have 64. We’ve got new sites in countries where there hasn’t been any fact-checking before — South Korea and Turkey and Uruguay. And we’ve got many fact-checking sites in Latin America thanks in part to the energetic work of Laura Zommer and her talented colleagues at Chequeado.
And joining us today are journalists from brand-new fact-checking sites just getting started in Nepal, Canada, Northern Ireland and Russia.
Wow. Think about what is happening here: politicians in Nepal and Canada and Mexico and Northern Ireland and Russia are now going to be held accountable in ways that they never have before.
Fact-checking has become a powerful and important new form of accountability journalism around the world. We should be very proud of what we’ve accomplished.
There are some great stories about our impact.
In South Africa, Africa Check has become such an important part of the news ecosystem that when someone from the main opposition party gives a speech, the party routinely issues a standard form – they call it the “Africa Check Response Form” – to list sources that back up claims the politician is making during the speech.
In Italy, a politician posted on his Facebook page that several thousand policemen had tested positive for tuberculosis because they had come into contact with immigrants crossing the Mediterranean illegally. The rumor fueled fears in Italy that the disease was about to become an epidemic. Pagella Politica fact-checked the claim and found it was ridiculously false. When confronted with the fact-check on a radio interview, the politician had the good sense to apologize for spreading a false rumor.
In the United States, fact-checkers are already uncovering falsehoods of the 2016 presidential candidates at a remarkable pace — and the election is more than a year away.
From governors to U.S. senators, American politicians are frequently citing the U.S. fact-checkers — and are clearly changing their behavior because they know they are being checked. Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio, three of the Republican presidential candidates, have all said they are more careful what they say because they know they are being fact-checked — and this is the term they used — “PolitiFacted.”
This is a wonderful moment for our movement. In hundreds of ways big and small, fact-checking has changed the world.
But rather than spend a lot of time celebrating the progress we’ve made, this week I think we should focus on the future and discuss some of our common problems and challenges.
We need to talk candidly about our readership. Although our audience is growing, it is still way too small. I expect that in most countries, fact-checks reach only a tiny percentage of voters.
We can’t be complacent and wait for people to come to our sites. We must expand our audiences through creative marketing and partnerships with larger media organizations. We must get our fact-checking in the old media — on TV and radio and in newspapers — even as we experiment with new media.
We also have to find new ways to make our content engaging. As we all know from looking at our metrics, there is a limited audience that wants to read lengthy policy articles. We need to find ways to make our content lively while still maintaining depth and substance.
We also need to focus on the quality of our journalism. Tomorrow morning Lucas Graves will be unveiling the first content analysis of fact-checking around the world. I’m hopeful it will lead to a thorough discussion of our best practices and, later this year, to a more extensive analysis of more sites in more countries.
We’ve devoted the longest session at the conference to the most significant challenge fact-checkers are facing — how to pay for our journalism. If you’ve looked at the database of fact-checkers I keep on the website of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, you’ve probably noticed that sites are marked “Active” or “Inactive.”
We do that because sites come and go, particularly after elections. In some cases, that’s because news organizations mistakenly believe that fact-checking is only needed during a campaign (Do news executives really think politicians stop lying on election day?). In most cases, sites go inactive because the funding dried up.
So at the conference this week, we must explore a wide variety of ways to pay for our important journalism. We can’t depend solely on foundations the way many of us have done. Likewise, those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been supported by legacy media organizations like newspapers and television networks would also be wise to find additional sources of revenue.
We need to think broadly and be creative. We can find long-term success the same way investors do: by diversifying. If we seek different types of revenue from more sources, we’ll be less vulnerable when one goes away.
As we look to the future, we also need to embrace technology and the power of computing. We’ve had a fascinating discussion about computing on our listserv a couple of weeks ago. But in that discussion and some others, I’ve heard a few hints that fact-checkers still have a skepticism about technology — the belief that computers won’t be able to do the work of human journalists. As one commenter put it, computers aren’t capable of assessing the complexity of politics and propaganda
I rate that statement Half True. While it’s true that computers can’t write fact-checks for us – yet – we have found ways they can help with our analysis, particularly with mundane and repetitive tasks.
As you’ll see in a session tomorrow, research projects at Duke, the University of Texas at Arlington and other places are showing great promise in using computational power to help journalists do fact-checking. Actually, computers CAN assess rhetoric and propaganda.
Although we are still years away from completely automated fact-checking — letting the robots do fact-checking for us — we have made tremendous progress in just the past year.
I think we’re just three to five years away from the point when automation can do many of the tasks of human fact-checkers — helping us find factual claims, helping us assess whether claims are accurate and providing automated ways to broadcast our fact-checks to much larger audiences.
We should not be afraid of technological progress. It will help us be better journalists and it will help us spread our messages to more people.
I’m glad you’re here. We’ve got some lively discussions ahead. Whether we’re talking about our challenges with funding, the importance of lively content or the promise of new technology, our goal is the same: To hold people in power accountable for their words.