When the news of an alleged attack on one of Ghana’s popular musicians broke in October, the internet was rife with so much speculation. The reports had indicated that the musician, Shatta Wale, had been shot by some unknown gunmen in his house according to his personal assistant. As would be expected anywhere in the world, several social media users began to look for the truth. The only source of information for some of them were social media pages of various news organizations.
Some few hours later, some very well established media houses in Ghana, reported on their social media pages that the musician was battling for his life and in a critical condition. On the same day, reports emerged that the whole situation was made up by the musician and his team. Social media users could not wrap their head around these reports that had somehow suggested that they had the media houses had more facts to the story.
They simply came for them on social media.
While it is important to note that media organizations also get it wrong sometimes, we cannot underestimate the impact that action may have on people, given the rate at which news is distributed in the social media age. In fact, a 2017 Poynter Institute report listed some of the top media errors and corrections by top media organizations in the US, a subtle acceptance of the media’s ability to screw up sometimes. However, the point remains that the media houses failed to do a proper fact-checking for a story of that magnitude before the report was published. This is just one of several other instances where news organizations report wrong facts in Ghana. The problem is that they may usually not issue a correction. “People will get over it, let’s just delete it” becomes their mantra. But if there’s anything refreshing about the fight against misinformation, it is that a number of conscious citizens are becoming more aware of issues around them, and questioning facts than ever before.
In this piece, we provide some important approaches as fact-checkers to newsrooms to enhance their news reporting skills. As important as it is for news organizations to have fact-checking desks, they should be able to operate without one because the basic idea of quality journalism requires that sources are cross-checked and claims, fact-checked.
These tips will help newsrooms negotiate that thin line between speed and accuracy.
- Keep a database of all documents
It may seem like a lot of work but keeping a database -online or offline- of various documents can come in handy when needed for verification. Institutions, government and public officials, agencies and politicians may not always make their documents available when you need them the most. At worst, documents get deleted from online databases. Even in cases where you have the right to request them, bureaucratic procedures may cause delay. This is because our biggest fear, and sometimes regret as fact-checkers is our inability to counter fake news in time.
Keeping a database makes you move faster. Factual information is always available to start off your fact-checking process. It is essential to also categorize this database as an effective strategy for future search activities.
There is no one way of doing this but using relatable categories can come in handy for everyone. There are important online tools such as Google Drive and Dropbox to help you keep electronic copies of documents in online folders. You can keep a list of useful links too.
- Maintain an updated list of contacts
Newsrooms are quick to admit that they do this. However, keeping a database of contacts of politicians and pundits alone is not enough. If what we have seen in past years of fact-checking is anything to go by, false claims usually come from these people. So, go beyond that and keep a list of experts whose understanding of subjects are important to your report.
Just like in managing your documents, contacts can also be categorised. This ensures that there is always another person to corroborate the facts or give a humanistic approach to it in areas of health, medicine, economic issues etc. Having multiple experts on standby is a good way to ensure availability of important data all time.
- Invest in digital tools
Even though the advancement in technology has played a major role in the spread of fake news as a result of the opportunities it affords us in digital media, artificial intelligence and creative tools, it has also presented us with great opportunities to deal with the same menace. To be able to be ahead in the game, photo and video verification tools can help you fact-check visual elements faster. Some of these applications may require some kind of financial commitment but they will be worth it. There are also various tools to help you check locations, identify streets and even car number plates of different countries.
- Visualize Reports
Graphs, infographics, illustrations and short videos are not only pleasing to the eyes. They help break down complex information into interesting and readable pieces that bulky texts deprive us of. The goal of journalists and fact-checkers alike is to get the right information to a target audience, and if there is a better and effective approach to do this, why not. The age of social media makes this point even more relevant. Whether you have an in-house designer or illustrator, or you are making use of online tools to create.
- Periodic Training of Journalists
As already stated in the introduction about establishing fact-checking desks, you may really not need it if you equip your journalists with enough skills in fact-checking to be able to do it on their own. Make use of fact-checking experts in fact-checking organizations who have the necessary skills to train journalists periodically. The truth is that new verification tools, methods and approaches continue to emerge. Dubawa Ghana provides such training programmes annually for journalists as part of our programmes and also upon request.
To end this piece, let me state that we understand how important it is for media organizations to get the news out in a very timely manner. This is probably one of the reasons why fact-checking is sometimes relegated to the background in newsrooms aside from reporters not being equipped enough to do that. However, from our experience as fact-checkers, accuracy and speed can work together just fine. It may not happen all the time but it is important to also not throw caution to the wind in our line of work.