This research is a qualitative study that seeks to identify the dominant approaches used by journalists and organisations in fact checking and the challenges that confront fact-checkers in the process. The findings of the study show that for journalists, fact checking involves an interwoven processing of information before it is published for public consumption. Organisations that are solely into fact checking as their core function often fact-check claims already published and are extracted from media platforms.
Despite the term fact-checking, often used casually to connote a thorough scrutiny of information, the study found that the journalist’s type of scrutiny as espoused by extant literature is designated as verification rather than fact-checking. However, fact-checking is fast emerging as a new genre in professional journalism.
The study also found that fact checkers and fact checking organisations encounter a number of challenges, including lack of access to information, perceived political victimization, lack of publicly available records, lack of public understanding of fact checking and lack of funding.
Key word: misinformation, fact checking, journalists, verification
Information disorder has gained global attention with its concomitant effect of derailing confidence and whittling away the trust of media audiences in the credibility and reliability of information shared on media platforms. This development has given rise to a number of measures being taken by state and para-state organizations and the media, in a concerted effort, to find a solution to spiking of information disorder in the public space. Information verification in the form of fact-checking has become the antidote being deployed to prevent the rapid spread and potential impact of misinformation in the thriving information ecosystem.
According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), the world is not just fighting a pandemic, rather, ‘’we are fighting an infodemic,” (United Nations Department of Global Communications, 2020). The statement goes to support extant literature that asserts that misinformation and other variables in the constellation of information disorder has become widespread, affecting almost every sector of social life. According to Nemr & Gangware (2019), a growing number of States, in the pursuit of geopolitical ends, are leveraging digital tools and social media networks to spread narratives, distortions, and falsehoods to shape public perceptions which can undermine trust in the matter or topic at hand. The study posits that on average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story and stories about politics are the most likely to go viral.
The global surge in fact-checking projects and fact-checking institutions aimed at countering the spread of misinformation is an ongoing process. According to Stencel & Luther (2020), the global total of fact-checking institutions more than doubled from 2016 to now and the number outside the U.S. increased two and a half times — from 97 to 246. Their report asserts that the number of fact-checking institutions in South America alone doubled while the counts for Africa and Asia more than tripled. Chronicling the rise of fact-checking activities in Europe, Graves & Cherubini (2016) posit that fact-checking sites in Europe continue to see growth with focus on political claims being fact-checked on a daily basis. The study further asserts that fact-checking sites can be found everywhere on the continent today, and as a genre, fact-checking has become sufficiently well-established that many news outlets without dedicated teams offer it on an ad hoc basis, especially during major political campaigns.
Graves & Cherubini (2016) categorize fact-checkers into three main groups – reporters, reformers, and experts. The differentiation in categorization is based on the method adopted in fact-checking claims and the mission that drives the effort allocated to fact-checking. Reporters are more concerned with providing information to citizens and often are found in the traditional newsrooms as professional journalists; and reformers do focus on promoting institutional development or change in politics and/or the news media. The third group of fact-checkers include organisations which have cultivated a role as independent experts, along the lines of a think tank devoted to extension of knowledge in the field.
Fact-checking is not a new phenomenon in Ghana and the spiraling rise of the practice is occasioned by the infiltration of fake news and misinformation into public discourse and on media platforms. A report by the DW Akademie (2019) on the status of information shared on media platforms suggests that the media landscape is witnessing a situation where users of new media platforms, such as on twitter and facebook, now determine the agenda for public discussion as against the traditional form where reporters and established news organisations set the agenda for public discourse. The report further suggests that because of lack of scrutiny on the part of users before sharing information on easy-to-go media platforms, it has given rise to the spread of misleading information. The report explains that such development is degrading the beauty of journalism with little or no attention given to fact checking.
A study by Graves (2013) asserts that fact-checking is not cast in the mode of traditional journalism though the practice is often interwoven with proofreading of information mainly to correct errors, change a language or expunge non-factual information. “Fact-checking aims to expunge error and falsehood, not to call attention to it. The response to a misleading claim is either to fix it, or to cut it.” The study explains further that fact-checking is a reform movement that seeks to publicize errors or false claims made by public officials and political actors. Unlike traditional journalism, fact checkers dedicate their publications to setting the record straight on a factual misrepresentation by either debunking a claim or authenticating the veracity of it.
According to Cazalens et al (2018), originally, fact checking designated the correct checking of all facts in news articles before they are published. This practice however is the core of journalistic work in almost all newsrooms. The study posits that over time, fact-checking as a term refers to the analyses of claims a posteriori, after a certain article (or tweet, or speech etc.) is published. The report explains that fact checking is performed by NGOs who usually maintaining active, high-profile websites, such as FactCheck or PolitiFact in the US and FullFact in the UK by specialists within established news organizations, such as the Fact Checker of the Washington Post2 in the US, the Décodeurs3 with Le Monde and Désintox4 within Libération in France.
Premised on the assertion by Graves & Cherubini (2016) and Cazalens et al (2018) that fact-checking could be undertaken either a priori, where the activity involves checking the correctness of all facts in news articles before they are published, or a posteriori, after a certain article has been published which involves:
- Extracting claims from some discourse,
- Searching for the facts the claims are based on,
- Assessing the accuracy of the claim with regards to those backing facts, and
- Providing perspective to claims for which there is no straightforward settlement,
this study thus seeks to:
- Identify the dominant group(s) of fact-checker(s) in Ghana
- Determine the fact-checking approach used by the identified group
- Assess the challenges fact-checkers encounter in the scheme of their work
Determining the Facts and Fact Checking
In determining the factual accuracy of a news article, a comment by a public official or a trending statement by a political figure, fact checking has become the ‘golden tool’ for winnowing fact from falsehood. A study by Graves, Nyhan & Reifler (2016) posit that fact checking enables journalists to interrogate the basis of primary information. Thus, fact checking has become the new paradigm in professional journalism for interrogating statements and comments published in the public space of discourse.
According to Mantzarlis (2018) The term “fact-checking” can mean two different things in journalism.
‘’Traditionally, fact-checkers were employed by newsrooms to proofread and verify factual claims made by reporters in their articles. This genre of fact-checking evaluates the solidity of the reporting, double-checks facts and figures, and serves as an overall round of quality control for a news outlet’s content before publication’’.
Fact checking today has taken a new paradigm where the focus is on “ex post”. “This type of fact-checking seeks to make politicians and other public figures accountable for the truthfulness of their statements. Fact-checkers in this line of work seek primary and reputable sources that can confirm or negate claims made to the public. “Ex post” fact-checking concentrates primarily (but not exclusively) on political ads, campaign speeches and party manifestos”.
This study predominantly uses in-depth interviews to gain a deeper understanding of approaches adopted by fact checkers in fact checking claims and challenges fact checkers encounter when doing fact checking in Ghana.
Two journalists each from radio, television, newspaper and online media were selected for the study. To ensure balance in the views expressed by the respondents, a male and a female each was selected from the four dominant media genres in Ghana – radio, television, newspaper and online. The gender of the journalists, however, was not germane to the study and was not factored in analysis. An interview guide was designed by the researcher to elicit responses from the respondents on sources they get information to fact check and also to identify the dominant challenges fact checkers encounter in their work.
According to Cazalens et al (2018), some established media organisations have a special desk for fact checking in their newsrooms with persons, often journalists, assigned and solely dedicated to the work of fact checking. Four of such media organisations were identified by the researcher and an in-depth interview with the focal persons was conducted to get an understanding of approaches as well as challenges they encounter as fact checkers.
To further understand specific approaches and challenges of fact checking as practiced in Ghana, work of two key organizations doing fact checking were also analysed and focal persons in the organisations were interviewed to understand the practice of fact-checking in Ghana. According to the Duke Reporters Lab, Dubawa Ghana and Ghana Facts are the only two organisations in Ghana that are dedicated to fact checking as a core institutional work and they will be part of organisations that receive attention in the study.
In all, eight (8) journalists from selected media organisations with the various genres of the media spectrum, 4 expert fact checkers with media organisations publicly known for conducting fact checking and two (2) organisations whose core mandate is fact checking were selected for the study.
Findings and Discussion
The findings of this study is based on responses from the in-depth interviews conducted and the questionnaires. The responses address key issues of approach adopted by fact checkers in determining whether an issue is factually accurate or fake, and the challenges they encounter while fact checking claims within the Ghanaian context.
Prevalence of Misinformation
Views expressed by the respondents suggest strongly the prevalence of misinformation in the information ecosystem in Ghana. Answering a question of whether misinformation is prevalent in the information ecosystem, an expert fact checker working with one of the selected media organisations in Ghana, herein called respondent 1, explained that truth is now competing with falsehood and other misleading information on media platforms.
‘The media is inundated with a lot of misinformation about everything. Sometimes, if you are not critical, you may be misled into believing false news as true.’
Corroborating his claim, respondent 2 who also works as an expert fact checker with a selected media organisation intimated that ‘misinformation is there in the media and in the public and it is widespread’.
The views expressed by respondents on the prevalence of misinformation in the public space reaffirms the position by the Director General of the WHO to the effect that the world today is battling with infodemic – a preponderance of misleading information in the public space. In a recent statement released by the WHO, the body bemoaned the havoc misleading information is causing especially in an effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The WHO statement asserts that the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed at the same time enables and amplifies an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardize measures to control the pandemic (WHO, 2020).
A study by Fullfacts (2020) supports the assertion that indeed misinformation is a common phenomenon in public discourse. The study posits that more than half of UK citizens agree that they have spotted news which they thought was inaccurate, exaggerated, or false. In Argentina, a third of respondents surveyed among Buenos Aires residents believed that the majority of news content shared on social media was false, while in Nigeria and South Africa approximately half of users thought they had spotted inaccuracies often.
Sources of Misinformation
The researcher sought to know the common sources from which misinformation emanates. Eight respondents who responded to the questionnaire shared their views on this. Politicians and political actors were the most cited for often initiating misleading information in public discourse. The graph below illustrates the responses by the 8 respondents.
Respondent 5 and 6 who were interviewed on the subject both agreed that though misinformation is spread across all divides of our social set up, politicians have become noted for peddling misinformation in public discourse. respondent 4 particularly mentions that ‘especially during political seasons, politicians make all manner of claims and it is thrown out there into public discussions. Sometimes it is even close to impossible to fact check such claims’. Respondent 6 also notes that during political seasons there is preponderance of misleading statements in the public domain and often, such statements are perpetrated by politicians.
The assertions by the respondents confirm the study by Graves & Cherubini (2016) that posit that the majority of misinformation that have wriggled itself into public discourse are statements and claims that can be attributed to politicians and political actors. A study by Brennen et al (2020) found that politicians are one of the sources of misinformation and often their statements have 69% engagement online as against sources from ordinary people.
Dominant Groups of Fact Checkers in Ghana
The findings of the study show that eight of the respondents interviewed are journalists whose work involves verification and scrutiny of information before being shared with the public for consumption. Four expert fact checkers sampled for this study are also journalists who are assigned a fact checking desk in their respective media organisations. According to Cazalens et al (2018), journalists belong to a group of fact checkers called reporters, whose role involves verifying information before going public with it for audiences’ consumption. Thus, the process of verification, which involves cross checking facts to determine whether information is accurate or not, is aimed at presenting factually accurate information to the general public and engenders informed public discourse on varying issues.
The other group identified by the study is made up of organisations whose work mandate is sloley dedicated to fact checking. Cazalens et al notes that organisations dedicated to fact checking belong to a group called reformers. Their study posits that reformers often operate as non-governmental organisations and their scheme of work often involves verifying claims already in the public domain. As observed by Duke Foundation Lab, Dubawa Ghana and Ghana Fact are the only two organisations that belong to the second group of fact checking organisations in Ghana.
Approaches to Fact Checking In Ghana
It is evident from the study that before journalists publish their final work, they do some form of scrutiny of their facts as part of their reporting techniques. However, this scrutiny is done prior to the publication of their stories in the media. Mantzarlis (2015) contends that the type of scrutiny undertaken by journalists should be designated as verification instead of fact checking. He argues that,
Verification and fact -checking are two separate but closely tied journalistic practices. ……. verification is a process that evaluates the veracity of a story before it becomes ‘the news’; fact-checking is a process that occurs post publication and compares an explicit claim made publicly against trusted sources of facts. In this sense, verification concentrates on the reliability of the origin of a claim, while fact-checking addresses the claim’s logic, coherence and context.
According to Cazalens et al (2018), unlike reformers who often do an a posteriori fact checking – fact check claims after publication and circulation in media and public spaces – the journalists’ work involves a verification before publication of whatever information they intend to share with the public.
Respondent 6 in an interview explains that as an organisation involved in fact checking, they do a lot of surveillance on all media platforms to get claims to fact check. ‘We scan the internet a lot in search of statements made by public figures and political actors. Beyond that, we listen to political programmes on air and also follow the politicians whenever they are making speeches at public forums and other places.
The assertion by respondent 6 was corroborated by respondent 1 who works on a fact checking desk with a media organisation and states that ‘as a journalist I verify my information before publishing it but when performing my role as a designated fact checker at my desk, my work involves looking at information that are already in the public domain and not one yet to make the news’.
Thus for journalists, ‘fact checking’ is done a priori – verification is done before information is published in the media. This type of verification according to Graves (2013) is often interwoven in proofreading of information mainly to correct errors, change a language or expunge non-factual information. Fact checking done by reformers, on the other hand, is done a posteriori – verification done after information is published in the public space. This involves publicizing the truth or the falsity of a claim fact checked.
Challenges of Fact Checking
Access to information and data
Access to data was majorly cited as the challenge that confronted fact-checking within the Ghanaian context. According to the respondents, public institutions are either unwilling to share available information when contacted or in instances where one makes the effort to do a personal search, the data is simply not available in the public domain.
Respondent 2 in highlighting the challenges that confront fact checkers in the country noted that ‘when politicians and public officials make a statement and find itself in public discourse and it calls for scrutiny, no government institution is ready to give you a document in order to substantiate claims or otherwise. In the event, most claims go without being fact-checked because there is no available data for the fact-checker to verify claims’.
Participant 4 in a similar response, mentioned that ‘either people are not willing to share information with you or they feel it will affect their position or they consider a disclosure of an information being requested for may hurt their organisation and they may suffer some consequences from their employers’
In 2019, the Right to Information Law was passed in Ghana. Among other things, the provisions in the law allows citizens to access a certain category of information in order to hold the government accountable. The law states among other things that:
- A person has the right to information, subject to the provisions of this Act;
- The right may be exercised through an application made in accordance with section 18; and
- A person may apply for information without giving a reason for the application.
While the law allows citizens to request for information, it also expects the government to provide the information as requested without impediments. ‘The government shall make available to the public, general information on governance without an application from a specific person’ (Ghana Business News, 2019).
It is instructive that while the law gives citizens the right to access information with all the privileges that goes with the rights, fact checkers continue to have challenges accessing information from key government institutions. However, as respondent 4 noted, most government officials are unwilling to give out information because they think it may hurt their organisation or they may suffer some consequences from their employers’
As political actors make statements in the public domain, getting access to publicly available information to verify claims made on campaign platforms or in other political programmes often proves challenging. Fact checkers who make the effort to contact government agencies to seek information from such agencies face a similar challenge of not getting access to data or an authority who could speak to the issue. Often, the reluctance as noted by respondent 3 in this study is because of a certain cloud of political victimization that awaits persons who share information that contradicts one made by government officials.
‘Some officials who sometimes you want to interview to get information on an issue that is already in the public space are simply unwilling to comment and will always frustrate your effort to get what you want. Some are just not willing because they feel they may be victimized once they give answers to what you are seeking to get’
Lack of proper record keeping
The study found that proper record keeping that facilitates access to referencing is often a challenge that confronts fact-checkers and fact-checking organisations. As observed by respondent 5 in an interview conducted for the study, she indicated that ‘ lack of proper record keeping is often a challenge and even when there is a claim that one can fact check, the lack of publicly available records makes one abandon the claim which otherwise is a fact checkable claim’.
‘There is a lot of victimization, name calling and tagging when you are involved in fact checking in this terrain. If you fact check a claim and it is in favour of the ruling government, the opposition accuses you of being a member or an affiliate of the party in power. When you, on the other hand, do your fact check that confirms as true what an opposition member has said as against what the government is claiming, supporters of the government see you as being in bed with the opposition. This makes it very difficult for our work sometimes and it affects us when you are genuinely doing your work and a political tag is placed on you’.
This concern expressed by respondent 3 again highlights how efforts are often made to discredit the work of the fact checker while they carry out their duties of verifying the truth or the falsity of an information.
Lack of Public Understanding
According to respondent 3 and respondent 4, the lack of public understanding of the whole fact checking exercise is a contributing factor to why sometimes some persons will want to discredit their work. ‘Respondent 3 notes that ‘sometimes people question you about how you came by your verdict and why you have to fact check one claim and leave others. Though I spend time to explain, it appears it has still not gotten down well with people and every time we publish a work, people still have issues with our verdicts’.
Respondent 4 shares similar concerns and intimates that ‘sometimes people’s political leanings make it difficult for them to accept a verdict that does not go in their favour. They see it as a contest and are ready to pounce on you for saying something that tarnishes the reputation of the party they hold their allegiance to’.
Funding of fact checking activities as observed by respondent 5 is sometimes a challenge. She mentions that ‘it is for that reason you hardly see organisations operating as fact checking organisations throughout the year. Though funding should not stop one from doing a follow up to a story to cross check facts and publish the truth or otherwise found, sometimes the exercise calls for financial commitments that make it even more challenging to be consistent with the frequency of fact checks one does’.
Responding to the question of whether funding is a challenge to fact checking in Ghana, respondent 5 also indicated that ‘generally funding a fact-checking project is challenging and it comes always as a hurdle that must be surmounted to get the work going as part of commitment to ensure appropriateness of information in the public space’
The findings of the study on the approach fact checkers adopt in conducting a verification activity to affirm or debunk a claim shows that political actors are the major sources misinformation emanates from.
The study found that reporters, often journalists, whose routine work comes with cross checking facts before sharing the information in the public domain for audiences’ consumption form one group of fact checkers in Ghana. Their fact checking often is a priori, thus the fact checking is done prior to the publication of a news item for public consumption. The other group of fact checkers are the reformers who do fact checking after a claim has already been publicized. Their form of fact checking called a posteriori is done after a speech, a tweet or statement is already made and circulating in public spaces.
On the challenges of fact checking in Ghana, the study found that access to information, perceived political victimization, lack of publicly available records, lack of public understanding of fact checking and lack of funding are challenges that confront the work of fact checkers in Ghana.
Based on the findings of the study, the researcher makes the following recommendations:
- Fact-checking organisations must continuously engage the public to educate them on the importance of fact checking and its impact in public discourse;
- Government agencies and institutions, as enjoined by law, must share information requested of them by persons and organisations who may need them without impediments.
- Good record keeping must be prioritised by the media for effective referencing to enrich their publications. Government agencies must equally leverage new technologies in storing relevant information for easy access by the general public.
- Since fact checking is gradually becoming a new genre in journalism, media outlets must activate their educative role in engaging the public on the core functions of fact checkers. This could immune fact checkers from the frequent victimisation they are subjected to.
- With the beneficial impact of fact checking in sanitising public discourse, the donor community must offer support to fact checking organisations as part of efforts in building a nation that engages in progressive and development-oriented public discourse.
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