In 2018, Africa Check welcomed three new fact-checkers and a copy editor to their South African office. Here Lloyd Hazvineyi, Cayley Clifford, Naphtali Khumalo and Mary Alexander share the lessons they’ve learned so far.
Once I’d come to know of Africa Check’s existence, I would often browse the website to read the latest reports. Before I opened one, I would pause on the home page. I was in love with Africa Check’s motto, “Sorting fact from fiction”, which gave me a good sense of what fact-checking was all about.
One of the basic fact-checking skills I learned in my first few days was identifying the claims that can’t be checked. Claims about the future – such as tweet claiming that South African Airways would make a loss of US$ 1.1 million per day in 2019 – cannot be fact-checked.
And asking “What is the potential impact of this claim on people?” enables you to focus on claims that really matter. Africa Check often deals with high impact fact-checks that can affect people’s lives. Politicians, journalists, governments and celebrities should think about this before posting or tweeting – it could be the first step in countering the spread of misinformation.
After a few weeks on the Africa Check team, I now think anyone can be a fact-checker. You don’t have to be a professional fact-checker to sort fact from fiction: it should be a way of life.
- Time (and fact-checking) waits for no woman
I was to be disappointed if I thought I could cruise through to the end of the year without too much hassle. An outspoken hater of numbers, I was daunted by my first fact-check, which took me deep into the definitions of GDP, per capita income and exchange rates.
But there is no shortage of claims to be checked and no time to be wasted. And once you start fact checking, you can’t stop. It quickly becomes a lifestyle.You have to fight the urge to ask “Is that a fact?” in general conversation – much to the annoyance of your friends and family.
- Check, double check and triple check your work
Seemingly subtle differences, such as that between “farm” and “forestry” workers, can completely alter the meaning of a sentence and therefore your fact check. Every word counts, so you want to pick them wisely.
- Never give up
No amount of polite pleading can make a spokesperson take your query. Conversely, little compares to the feeling of exuberance when someone does come back to you. The trick is not to give up – even when you feel like a nuisance.
I have learned to use different approaches to different sources. Hounding an academic to get information probably won’t work, although you do have to do quite a bit of sleuthing before even getting so much as a phone number. But government officials, on the other hand, need constant phone calls, emails, and WhatsApp messages.
Also – and this goes for both private and government organisations – you need to be prepared to be bounced around quite a bit, from one email address to another phone number to a different city and even a different country.
For years I worked on a good-news website – now defunct – that tried to change global perceptions of South Africa by presenting the facts. These facts were, I admit, often cherry-picked, and the language closer to copywriting than journalism. But the experience gave me a prickly awareness of blandly dismissive and ignorant statements about Africa.
I knew something of Africa Check when I started copy-editing their reports earlier this year. But I vaguely assumed the work would largely be a lot of fun debunking of racists. It’s not. A few reports check false statements by overseas media. But most of it is meticulous research in which the accuracy of every word, every number, measurement, date, symbol, link and source has to be painstakingly checked and verified, and then written in clear and dispassionate language. More than this, it’s fact-checking of Africans, by Africans.
False claims can change lives in countries with high inequality and where education is difficult to access. Sometimes the claims may seem trivial, but debunking them can prevent real fear. Other false claims could alter important life choices.
Inaccurate statements about government services can impede their delivery. Africa Check’s Promise Trackers inform people’s voting choices by tracking how well political parties are keeping their election promises. In between there’s plenty of good news, of functioning democracies facing real problems but taking them on. Not to mention the site’s wealth of guides and factsheets – none of them cherry-picked.
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