Africa Check is a non-partisan organisation that exists to promote accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa.
To do this effectively, it is important that we stick to the best practices in fact-checking, recognised by fact-checking organisations around the world, and that we adhere to our three fundamental operating principles.
As everyone from football referees to fact-checkers the world over knows, the commonest cry from anyone found guilty of making a false or misleading claim, is that the person making the accusation is biased against them.
For an organisation such as ours, working hard to promote accuracy in debate, how do we counter this criticism? How do we ensure that our work is impartial, and fair, based on the best available evidence – and how do we ensure it is seen that way?
- Diversity of funding
The first part of the answer is to ensure we have well diversified funding.
Since Africa Check was set up in 2012 with funding from Google and the International Press Institute, we have worked hard to diversify our funding base. We now receive funding from seven major institutional donors and in early 2015 launched a commercial training and research service called Tri Facts to generate our own funds entirely independently.
A thoroughly non-partisan approach is set out in our operating guidelines, and we do our best to live to that. But the diversity of funding that we seek helps to ensure that we are not, and will never, be susceptible to pressure for any one organisation and thus helps guard the impartiality we see as critical to our mission.
- Strict editorial procedures – based on evidence
The second part of the answer is to ensure we follow strict editorial procedures – based on the best available evidence.
First, there is the question of what claims we check. Taking suggestions from both our team and our readers, we work hard to ensure that, over time, we check all sides in any debate.
And when we have decided what to check, we first ask the person or institution whose claim we are checking for evidence that supports their statement and then cast the net for additional evidence as widely as possible.
The methodology we follow with every report is the same. We then base our reports on the evidence we find and publish the findings, whatever they show, linking to that evidence so that readers can verify our conclusions for themselves.
We were proud that a 2015 study by US-based academics of fact-checking sites in six different countries around the world concluded that Africa Check links to the greatest number and widest range of sources per article. This is something we intend to continue.
Our second key principle is transparency. We believe that transparency is vital in fact-checking.
First, when we check a claim, we always attempt to contact the person whose claim we are checking to ask them for their evidence. This is not always easy as they do not always reply to our calls or emails, but we always seek to contact them to ensure they have a chance to explain their claim.
At the same time, to enable our readers and those we have fact-checked to check our findings for themselves, we always provide links to all the material that we use in our reports and detail all the people we speak to. And we do not use anonymous sources, only publicly-available evidence and named sources.
The principle of transparency is important, because it is this – and only this – that enables our readers to check our findings for themselves. And that is by the far best method, we believe, of persuading people of our findings, and of making sure that we also get things right.
Of course, like any other organisation, we do make mistakes from time to time, and when we do we attempt to correct them openly and honestly.
First things first, we try, of course, to avoid mistakes by casting the net as wide as possible for evidence. And second, we make it a rule that every piece that goes out is checked by at least two people before it is published.
But where we do make mistakes, we correct them as quickly and openly as possible and, where appropriate, allow readers or those referred to in our reports a suitable right of reply. This ties in with our policies of impartiality and transparency.
Principles in action – how we produce our reports
Every report we produce is different, but to ensure we fact-check all fairly, the way we approach it is the same.
- Select the claim to check
First our editors sift the suggestions sent in by readers and raised by others in the team, based on criteria set out on the website: is the topic important, was the claim framed as a statement of fact or opinion, does the claim matter, and is it a speaker we have focused on before, since we want to be sure we check all sides in any debate.
- Establish exactly what was said
Once we have the topic, we must establish exactly what was said. Claims sent in by readers for us to check can sometimes be vague. But to check a claim, we need the precise wording. What exactly did they say? Was it as reported? And what was the context in which it was said?
- Ask for their evidence
Having established the claim, we try to contact the speaker, or their office, and ask what evidence they have for their claim. We always seek the speaker’s evidence.
- Check our archives, and other sources
Our next step is to check our archives, and other publicly available sources, for evidence that supports, and evidence that contradicts the claim, casting our net as widely as possible.
- Discuss the evidence with experts
Having secured the evidence, we discuss it with specialist experts where necessary to help understand the data. We only discuss with experts willing to go on the record, as we do not use anonymous sources.
- Write up the report – setting out evidence step-by-step and providing links
We write up our report, setting out, first, the claim that was made and the context in which it was delivered and reported; second the evidence that supports the claim; third any contrary evidence; and fourth, a balanced conclusion. For all evidence we quote we provide a link or quote the source.
- Have a colleague review the report & findings
To ensure that the report itself is accurate, we then ask one of the researcher’s colleagues to review the report, and independently assess the findings, before it is finalised.
- Publish, and monitor feedback
Finally we publish the report, making it available for free on the site and to the media, and monitor feedback. If or when a reader identifies an error, we update the report openly.