Nicola Theunissen ANALYSIS: SA media increased fact-checks over past 5 years – but more’s needed

While newsrooms do not have consensus on what exactly fact-checking journalism entails, they have no doubt it can increase accountability in the political landscape.

Reflecting on “fake news” as a sword over the head of media credibility, the fourth State of South African Newsrooms report frames fact-checking as a critical counterpoint.

But how prevalent is fact-checking in the South African media landscape?

Africa Check commissioned Dr Bob Wekesa and two fellow researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department to enquire.

Their study, captured as a chapter in the Fakers & Makers report, finds that the South African media sharply increased its interest in fact-checking. The number of fact-checks rose from zero in 2012, to 68 fact-checks in the first nine months of 2017.

However, little fact-checking originates directly from the newsroom and South African media relies mostly on the work of external fact-checking organisations (such as Africa Check) for content.

Agreeing what’s ‘a fact-check’

The fourth state State of South African Newsrooms report frames fact-checking as a critical counterpoint.

Fact-checking journalism is a new twist on an old tale. Although journalists have committed to fact-based reporting as early as the US yellow press and muckrakers in the 1900s, an increase in misinformation in the digital age pushed it to the fore.

As a form of accountability journalism, fact-checking proliferated over the last decade. Currently, there are 149 active fact-checking projects globally, but as Wekesa’s study points out, many of these remain in the global north.

A fact-check follows a set formula. In Wekesa’s research it is defined as a process that “checks and verifies factual statements and claims with the aim of establishing the truthfulness, correctness or authenticity of the assertion based on verifiable facts”.

The findings show that SA media lacks clarity on exactly what fact-checking journalism entails. Interviews with editors revealed that newsrooms do not have consensus on definitions and appear to be ambivalent whether fact-checking is performed as a specific genre of journalism, or simply as a standard journalistic task.

Editors do seem to agree on fact-checking’s contribution to increase accountability in the political landscape though. Phillip de Wet, at the time Mail & Guardian associate editor, affirmed that fact-checking is an important way through which government officials and politicians can be held accountable for their public utterances.

Similarly, acting managing editor for Daily Vox Benazir Cassim highlighted that fact-checking plays a key role in debunking false claims: “People, especially those in power, have been getting away with making false claims and spouting nonsense for far too long, and fact-checking journalism is necessary to hold them to account.”

How the study was done

Wekesa’s study followed a mixed method design combining data from a quantitative content analysis with newsroom editor interviews.

It measured the online content of nine media organisations: Mail & Guardian, Sunday Independent, City Press, The Citizen, Daily Maverick, Daily Vox, News24, Eyewitness News and TimesLive.

A keyword search was conducted and included content of authors who self-identified as engaging in a form of “fact-checking journalism”. Other forms of journalism seeking to verify public claims, including investigative journalism, but which didn’t refer to it as “fact-checking” were excluded.

The study recorded 277 fact-checks published in SA media for the period 2012 to 2017, starting in the year when Africa Check was launched as a two-person project based at the Wits journalism department.

Overall, Eyewitness News and Daily Maverick recorded the highest number of fact-checking content, followed by Mail & Guardian. This was followed by The Citizen and Daily Vox. The lowest number of content items were from City Press, Timeslive and Sunday Independent.

Wekesa’s data indicates that 80% of fact-checking journalism recorded in these media platforms based their fact-checking content solely on Africa Check reports.

They referenced Africa Check content in 9% of cases and based their content on fact-checking organisations other than Africa Check in 7% of cases.

The study further found that only 2.5% of content relied on the news platforms’ own fact verification methods.

Training newsrooms to increase fact-checks

Fact-checking journalism has become more visible over the last five years. Wekesa confirms that it has rapidly gained traction in the South African media landscape and increased newsroom responsibility.

According to the report, “perhaps the greatest value of Africa Check is that it has pushed newsrooms to take their fact-checking more seriously. Partly, this has been due to the courses it runs in newsrooms.”

To further Africa Check’s aim of keeping debate honest and public figures on their toes, we need the South African media industry to continue to think and work as fact-checkers. Our training in fact-checking methodologies supports journalists to fulfill this role. In 2017, we trained 582 people from 88 organisations across the continent.

This year we will continue to reach out and train media organisations in South Africa and beyond to promote a culture of fact-checking in the newsroom and increase the impact of our work.

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