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A crucial return to fact-checking

true sign confirm icons setBy Clement Charles, CEO & Founder, AllTheContent News Agency

One of the fundamental principles of journalism is to check and cross-reference facts. However, over the last thirty years, the amount of time devoted to fact-checking has been drastically reduced.

The causes are many. Lighter content and new writing formats, combined with ever-increasing economic pressures on editorial boards, have reduced their capacity to fund the investigative and cross-referencing process. Yet the digital revolution, partially responsible for these economic pressures, has made it possible to go back to (the right) basics.

All the while generating added value, rehabilitating fact-checking is in my opinion also essential to build trust between journalists and their readership, and between media and their audience.

Present endeavors such as PolitiFact’s “Truth’o’meter” or the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” are a step in the right direction, in terms of going back to basics, returning to the roots of journalism, and back to verifying sources. These initiatives have been successful, demonstrating that a journalist’s role is not to be a mere transmission belt for the most powerful messages, but to question everything, to take nothing for granted, and to hold as essential the establishment or the re-establishment of objective truths when it comes to the validity of facts presented by elites.

I have regularly suggested a variation of this type of verification concept to various national television managers, in Switzerland or elsewhere: a team of verifying journalists, whose role would be to confront the assertions of politicians to the objective reality of their facts and figures during televised debates.

In 2014, it is no longer acceptable to have live televised debates in which politician A asserts figures from a study proving his point, followed by politician B commenting the same study and disputing the same figures before quoting his own set of non-sourced data to back-up his counter-arguments.

Instead of a journalist with a blank stare whose only function is to observe sterile sparring between two people who couldn’t care less about empirical realities before moving on to the next question, viewers are entitled to decisive journalists. Even more so when it comes to public service television: its funding structure must reflect the fact that it caters to a general audience, not to the elites who gravitate in its premises. Citizens expect and deserve that journalists get off the fence, that they be grounded in fact-checking.

Returning to the imaginary debate between A and B, once contradictory truths have been presented, the journalist should then be given the floor, in order to make a stand, backed by his team of fact-checkers. “Gentlemen, the study you refer to indicates this figure with regard to the point you are making. Mr. A, your figure is incorrect; Mr. B, your figure is correct,” and so on, including every imaginable variation. All the relevant documents and sources identified by the research team would be shared with the audience, whether via the Internet today, or tomorrow, via interactive television.

To further reinforce how indispensable our profession is in light of the direct communication capacities of institutions, journalists must be given a chance to speak up and present truths supported by facts.

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