Fact-checking caught on as a way to improve political reporting, but today it is a broad and diverse field. How do fact-checkers in different countries work in collaboration – and competition – with journalists?
Fact-checking is now a worldwide movement, counting at least 225 active projects, organizations, and campaigns in more than 75 countries, according to Duke Reporters' Lab. Fact-checkers differ considerably though from one context to the next, and the movement's transnational growth has been fueled by different impulses in different regions.
Professional journalists from the United States, African civic technologists, and Eastern European activists are just a few of the people one might encounter at a global fact-checking conference. Despite their different origins and interests, fact-checkers work together within international networks to challenge misinformation in its many forms.
Fact-checking in the newsroom to reform journalism
For established media outlets, fact-checking features provide a new and potentially compelling angle for political reporting on polarizing issues. Focusing on the facts allows journalists to move beyond straightforward "he said/she said" presentations of opposing political viewpoints.
Newsroom fact-checking is especially prominent in the United States, where it developed as an outgrowth of political journalism focused on elections. FactCheck.org, which describes itself as a "nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters," was created with a team of professional journalists during the 2004 presidential campaign. The Washington Post set up its own Fact Checker during the 2008 elections. PolitiFact, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, was also created directly by a newspaper (St. Petersburg Times) for the 2008 election.
According to Lucas Graves, associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, such fact-checkers are part of "a professional reform movement." They aim to reinvigorate good journalistic practice in a polarized political environment.
However, they also operate within a highly competitive commercial media landscape. As a result, the American Press Institute has observed that fact-checkers in the US have been slow to collaborate with one another. Many fact-checkers in other parts of the world refer to reports by their colleagues – not least so they can avoid unnecessary duplication of work. However, fact-checkers in commercial newsrooms, especially in the US, defend their brand by re-checking information and insisting on the robustness of their own verification processes.
Newsroom fact-checkers are, of course, not confined to the United States. Similar projects are especially visible in Europe, but they also exist around the world: France's Libération newspaper launched Désintox (now CheckNews.fr) in 2008; Denmark's public broadcaster DR and Channel 4 News in the UK have both maintained regular fact-checking features for many years; and AFP operates fact-checking units within regional offices from Africa and Asia to Latin America and the Middle East. Other media outlets have likewise experimented with fact-checking projects from time to time, especially during election campaigns.
Beyond the newsroom: Media alternatives or allies?
While most fact-checkers understand their mission as fundamentally journalistic, many have sought independence from established media. This is the case, for example, for Brazil's Agência Lupa. The project was founded in 2015 by journalists with support from the publisher of piauí literary magazine, and its web page is hosted by the Folha de São Paulo newspaper and the associated UOL internet portal. However, Lupa is editorially independent of all of these. It operates as a commercial news agency, selling its own fact-checked information to media around the country.
Establishing a reputation for independence and objectivity has been a challenge in Brazil's polarized media landscape, as founder Cristina Tardáguila explains: "As a rule, before you read a newspaper in Brazil, you already know what to expect. We had to publish many articles before we could prove that we are neither defending A, nor attacking B."
An additional area in which Lupa operates is media and information literacy. Through LupaEducação, the agency organizes workshops and lectures for companies, schools, and online audiences to help train ordinary citizens in verification methods. This work also provides the agency with additional revenue to sustain itself.
Other fact-checkers perform similar work within non-profit structures. One of the most visible examples is Africa Check, which covers political, economic, health, and other issues in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. The organization was initially funded by the International Press Institute in Vienna, but has actively worked to expand and diversify its funding "to ensure no donor has a controlling influence."
Africa Check partners with other regional organizations such as Code for Africa, which brings together fact-checking and civic technology work. Like Agência Lupa, Africa Check has also spun off a commercial services unit which provides training, research, and information for clients and thus supplements the non-profit's funding base.
Non-profit fact-checkers straddle the line between journalism and civic engagement. Researchers from Karlstads Universitet in Sweden argue that such groups alternately bypass, assist, and challenge traditional media, depending partly on how they fit within their local media landscape.
In a comparative study, the researchers noted that non-profit fact-checkers in Africa tend to see themselves "both as facilitators and as alternatives to legacy news media," whereas their European counterparts regard themselves mostly as allies to professional journalists. In both regions, a certain ambiguity results from the reality that non-profit fact-checkers engage in multiple forms of journalism, including investigative, service, watchdog, advocacy, and citizen journalism.
The German group Correctiv, for example, describes its work as "non-profit investigative journalism" that aims to restore the democratic role of journalists as society's "fourth estate." Like Africa Check, its initial funding came from a single source, but it, too, now receives donations from members of the public as well as from a range of media, civil society, and civic education funding bodies.
As a non-profit, Correctiv is in a position to devote energy and resources to "time-consuming investigations and high-quality content" that profit-oriented newsrooms neglect. It disseminates its findings partly through established media and thus argues that "other media are not competitors, but partners," adding: "With our work, we contribute to diversity and quality in the media system." Alongside its Facts for Democracy project, Correctiv also organizes public events, including an annual festival, and provides training to journalists as well as ordinary citizens.
Whether situated within the journalistic profession or outside it, fact-checkers share a commitment to improving information for the public. They do so not only with their day-to-day verification work, but also through training activities and other collaborations.