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Unpacking Fake News: Brief on Media Organisations in the Frontline of Combating Information Disorder in Ghana

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Abstract

The role of the media in informing and educating its audiences has not only been achieved through traditional reporting but more recently through fact-checking claims that have dubitable character and may have the propensity to misinform and mislead. This study, through interviews, established the critical role fact-checking is playing in sanitizing the information ecosystem of polluted information in Ghana. While on one hand these media houses seek to ensure that the general public is served with factual information, there are challenges they are confronted with on the other hand – easy access to information, funding and political ownership of some of the media organisations – being some of them. The study recommends that the media should, in the face of the highlighted challenges, make fact-checking an integral part of the newsroom architecture separate from investigative journalism and other genres of reporting. 

Introduction 

The information ecosystem has become convoluted with an avalanche of messages shaped and contorted along the lines of propaganda, fabrications, satires, and memes. Digital media has become the dumping site for predators who share information that baits readers but are bereft of facts and sometimes lacking authenticity (Pangrazio, 2018).

Often, information shared on digital media platforms travel far and wide across the globe and media audiences rarely consume such messages by first subjecting them to a second check to ascertain their truth or falsity. Coupled with the ease of access to such media platforms, users find new media as a safe haven for propagating misinformation and fake content; and eventually, the site has become a breeding ground for fake news. 

The advantages of using digital media – unrestricted access, low cost of entry, and the advantage of ‘multi-mediality’ – make it user-friendly, thus eliminating all potential barriers that will preclude a user from sharing information at any time and anywhere. While digital media provides these positives, the challenges associated with it, particularly the preponderance of fake news in the ecosystem, is often a worry to many, such as consumers of media messages, policy makers and even governments. Indeed, the prevalence of polluted information and fake news on digital media has implications on governance, human security, businesses, the environment and more recently the health sector.

For example, with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fatalities that have been recorded and ones being recorded in the second wave of the pandemic have made everyone edgy and willing, without often questioning, to latch on any drug or herbs that portend to fight the virus, all in an effort not to be killed by the disease. From the origin of the virus, through to the behavior of the virus and the debate about its mode of transmission to the point of a medication to treat the virus are all riddled in fake information, thus making many people feel their faith to be hanging in the balance and struggling to determine what information is worth believing.

In a recent presidential and parliamentary elections held in Ghana, social media platforms – WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook – went buzzing from one allegation to another from the camps of the two main political parties jostling for power – New Patriotic Party (NPP) and Nation Democratic Congress (NDC). Committed to ensuring that the voters are well informed on policies, projects and programmes being promised by the political parties, the media, popularly referred to as the fourth estate of the realm, took up the responsibility of not only reporting the news as it breaks but went further to defuse fake information in the public sphere by fact-checking statements made by political party officials on campaign platforms and political talk shows in the media.

To enhance understanding on the role the media played in battling the fake news canker, this report places the spotlight on the media organisations that were at the forefront of combating fake news especially during the election period. A profile of the media organisations, mode of fact-checking, rating scales used, tools for fact-checking, impact of their work, challenges they encounter, and the sustainability plan for the fact-checking exercise are the key outlines that this report seeks to highlight. 

Focal persons in the selected media organisations were interviewed on the thematic areas that the report seeks to address. In all, five media houses – Citi FM, Joy FM, Starr FM, 3FM and Ghanaweb – were selected for the interview. The selected media houses were at the frontline of combating misinformation and fake news where fact-checking was either part of the station’s programming or of a project initiated to be executed within a specified time frame. 

Profile of the Media Organisations

Citi FM

Citi FM is a private radio station based in Accra-Ghana, which commenced commercial broadcasting in November 2004. The station employs English as its medium of communication and offers a blend of adult contemporary music, news, and talk programmes. The station has a dominant presence in Greater Accra, Eastern, Central and parts of Volta and Western Regions in Ghana and aims at a global reach as online radio. In 2006, the station was also adjudged the New Radio Station of the year at the BBC Africa Radio Awards for West Africa in August 2016.

Joy FM

Joy FM is a radio station based in Accra. It was Ghana’s first English-speaking private radio station, established in 1995 as the country’s news and entertainment hub. Many private radio outlets followed after. Joy FM targets the middle to upper income group of listeners. The station’s format consists of news and talk programming interspersed with entertaining music programs.

Joy FM is one of the country’s most patronised radio stations. It is part of the Multimedia Broadcasting Limited, one of Ghana’s biggest private media groups that cover radio, digital TV & Online 

Starr FM

Starr 103.5 FM is an urban, lifestyle radio station, which focuses on the delivery of compelling programmes through good music, entertainment/lifestyle – led talk programmes and sports for its target audience. In respect of News and Current affairs, it seeks to deliver accurate, factual, relevant and newsworthy stories to its listeners. It seeks to entertain and educate the target listeners through music and talk content that it puts on air, through its events and promotions. Starr is part of the Excellence in Broadcasting media group that has TV and online presence. (https://e4impact.org/partners/starr-103-5-fm/).

3FM

3FM is a privately owned radio station in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The radio station is owned by Media General Radio Limited which forms part of Media General, a media and Communications Company which owns several television and radio stations in Ghana (https://onlineradiobox.com/gh/3/).

Ghanaweb

GhanaWeb is a comprehensive resource about Ghana. It’s a website on information, news and entertaining content. In 1999 the website was renamed as GhanaWeb from formerly being known as GhanaHomePage. The owning company of the website is Bellaart Investments B.V., a privately owned company that is operating from The Netherlands.

In the last decade, GhanaWeb’s profile has risen in Ghana. Initially, the webpage consisted of some pages with information about Ghana but it quickly has evolved and expanded into a platform which is used by thousands of contributors to publish their content.

In a survey by Goodman AMC, GhanaWeb was mentioned as a media news source that Ghanaians would trust to provide first-hand and reliable information in the 2016 presidential election (http://ghana.mom-rsf.org/en/media/detail/outlet/ghanaweb/). 

Fact-checking: Processes adopted by the media 

The resources for fact-checking are usually claims or statements made in public spaces that lend themselves to verification. Often, such statements may have gone viral, thus dividing opinion and creating doubts in the minds of media consumers about the authenticity of the claim. Explaining the processes his media organisation adopted in fact-checking a claim, the first respondent (R1) interviewed asserted that identification of a claim that is worth fact-checking is the first step in the process. 

‘The process starts by first identifying a claim, then we conduct research on what we have by speaking to experts where expert advice is needed so we get proper and professional insight into the issues that have engaged public attention,’ R1 said.

Having done fact-checking for six years, respondent one affirmed that the initial process of identifying what claim ought to be fact-checked is the first hurdle that must be crossed after thorough investigations are done on the statements to ascertain the factual basis of the claim.

‘Identifying the claim is one step of the process but beyond this step, I do a thorough investigation by consulting other resources mostly online to help me establish the facts that support or debunk the claim’.

The processes as highlighted by the respondents align with the processes for fact-checking as outlined by Dubawa, one of only two full-time fact-checking organisations in Ghana. According to Dubawa, fact-checking involves a five-step process: (a) Choosing the claim(s) (b) Assigning to a team of independent researchers (c) Researching the claim (d) Writing the report (e) Editing with skepticism and then (f) Publishing. These processes ultimately drive and guide researchers and fact-checkers in conducting their investigations.

On his part, respondent 4 (R4) argues that in as much as most of the claims are already being discussed in the public domain, which he calls demand driven, claims can also be supply- driven, where the researcher finds information worth being fact-checked and then shares its findings with the public.

‘For me, identification of a claim is either demand-driven or supply-driven. If the issues are topical and have engaged a lot of public discussions, often with no clear lines as to where the truth lies, I pick the story and conduct my own investigations. I speak to experts, if the issues will need experts to explain it better for the understanding of all. In this case, the issues are already in the public domain so the public may be craving to know what the truth is. Instances of such nature in the fact checking process is what I call demand-driven.

However, there are instances where the issues may not have necessarily been a highly debated issue in the public domain, but what I do is that I bring up the issues I consider worth informing the public about, by providing additional information through my research. Sometimes I pick the budget and I dissect the issues and supply the public with additional information in order for them to have an enhanced understanding of it,’ R4.

Respondent four (R4) however has a different approach in identifying his claims as compared to other respondents. The processes involved in investigating a claim according to this respondent are similar to what is outlined by Dubawa as a standard process to follow in fact-checking.

Again, according to Politifact, an organisation that fact-checks political claims, researchers must ask themselves the following questions in arriving at a claim they are convinced it is worth fact-checking:

  1. Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? 
  2. Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?
  3. Is the statement significant? 
  4. Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?
  5. Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder if it is  true? 
  6. Is the statement newsworthy
  7. And sometimes, driven by curiosity, we pick a statement to fact check.

These processes appear generally standardized in the two fact-checking organisations actively involved in fact-checking claims and the processes adopted by the media organisations at the forefront of fact-checking in Ghana are not at variance to what is considered to be standard.

Fact-checking: Resources for Researchers

Fact-checkers decide the available tools to deploy to help them achieve their goal and which best will serve their purpose. Often, the internet has been a major resource for these fact-checkers. Online software applications have assisted these fact-checkers to interrogate, analyse, and verify images, videos and statements of facts, and expose misleading ones all in an effort to present reliable information for the consumption of the public.

Respondent three (R3) holds the opinion that ‘for most of the information we fact-check, we rely on the internet to gather additional information to confirm or debunk a claim being subjected to verification. Some of the tools we use are just to check whether an image used to tell a story is a true representation of what it purports to communicate or rather it tends to mislead the public instead’.

Corroborating the position of respondent three (R3), respondent one (R1) alludes to the use of other manual resources such as reports and hard copy documents to facilitate their work. He makes the point that ‘often, getting information to verify a claim is a very tedious exercise and one will have to scan through voluminous documents in search of facts and figures sometimes’.

While many of the resources have been the use of documentary evidence to authenticate the veracity of a claim or otherwise, opinions of professionals in a particular field of study or a specialized sector in governance and administration have also been relied on by fact-checkers to get expert opinion on a claim under scrutiny.

‘Where necessary, we speak to professionals who have expert knowledge on a claim we are investigating. In issues like health, we speak to professionals who share insightful thoughts that informs our decisions in rating our claims’, says respondent 2.

Fact-Checking: Rating of Claims

Fact-checking is aimed at confirming a claim as true or otherwise. In doing so, fact-checkers are guided by some form of indicators to pass a verdict after a thorough investigation of a claim. Generally, respondents make the point that a claim may be false or true, ‘however, there are instances where the claim may not be wholly true nor false and it is in that instance that we may say it is either partly true or even sometimes misleading, depending on what we find out’, says respondent five (R5).

To assist fact-checkers arrive at a conclusion and pass a verdict on their searches, Dubawa has a documentary guide which is often relied on by its researchers as a guide in making a conclusive statement upon interrogation of a claim. The scale as designed by Dubawa and often adopted by the media organisations has five (5) categories:

  1. True – A fact-check is deemed true when all elements of such a claim pertain to factual information. 
  2. False – A fact-check is deemed false when all elements of such a claim do not pertain to factual information at the time of assertion. In essence, manipulated and fabricated content will be considered false.
  3. Mostly True – A fact-check is deemed mostly true when some elements of such  claim pertain to factual information. Usually, this rating will be assigned to fact-checks with three or more claims.
  4. Mostly False – A fact-check is deemed mostly false when some elements of such  claim do not pertain to factual information at the time of assertion, while an element may be true. Usually, this rating will be assigned to fact-checks with three or more claims.
  5. Misleading – A fact-check is deemed misleading when elements of a claim are too complex to be termed true or false. This could mean two things:
    •  More Context Needed/ Wrong Context – when the claim(s) oversimplifies complex issues. On a surface level, these may seem correct but they are either used out-of-context or depict an unintended meaning
    • Insufficient Evidence – when the claim(s) is unverifiable; usually pertaining to urban myths or unquantifiable data

These scales of measurement are amply manifested in the claims published by the media organisations. Ultimately, combating fake news involves taking a stance on a statement one is investigating based on the facts that speak to the claim. Unlike mainstream journalism, the reporter is restrained from expressing their opinions, except in opinion editorials. It is again instructive to observe that in fact-checking, as against mainstream reporting, verification of claims is a posteriori, where statements and claims become subject of verification after publication.

Fact-Checking: Impact on Society

Respondents allude to three main indicators that point to the impact of fact-checking on media audiences:

  1. Public’s interest in fact-checking
  2. Consciousness of political actors in making public statements
  3. Media discussions on fact-checked information

Public’s interest in fact-checking 

Respondents allude to incidents of members of the general public calling newsrooms to put forward claims they have come across to be fact-checked for them. According to R1, who has worked as a fact-checker and researcher in his media organisation for the past five years, this phenomenon was unknown in the past. 

‘Sometimes, you get a call and someone tells you he/she has seen a statement on another media platform and they will want you to verify the authenticity of the claim in the statement. In the 2016 elections especially, though I was doing some form of fact checking, I never had calls from the public requesting I fact-check a claim they have come across with. This I view as a milestone and a recognition of the work we are doing as a media house in informing the public with accurate information,’ R1 said.

The assertion made by R1 is corroborated by R3 who says ‘we get attacked by the public for some of the verdicts we make after our findings. Especially with party followers, they insult you and attack your level of objectivity. The keenness with which the public follow our work and even criticize us show the level of enthusiasm with which they follow this exercise’.

Media content, has in recent times been taken with doubt by media audiences (UNESCO, 2018). The growing interest in fact-checking by the general public shows a level of interest by audiences in media messages that are factual and accurate. Given that the preponderance of fake news in media spaces was chipping away the confidence of audiences in the media, the growing interest in fact-checking points to a revival of interest in media content.

Consciousness of political actors in making public statements

The apparent consciousness being exercised by politicians in their public utterances during the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections especially was a positive indication, according to R4 of the impact fact-checking is having in the political arena. He asserts that ‘somehow, politicians were careful with their choice of words and they will often remark that they need to speak well before they are taken on by the media’.

This assertion by  R4 is re-echoed by R1 and R3 who share similar observations of how one hardly finds political party officials and key leaders of a political group making statements that they may not be able to substantiate when subjected to strict scrutiny. R3 however observed that though politicians exercised some caution in their public utterances, such responses were not reflected on online platforms where some of the political parties have followers or individuals aligned to a political party and its ideologies.

The assertion by R3 confirms the widely held view by scholars that fake news is most prevalent in echo-chambers (Yusuf, Al-Banawi & Al-Imam, 2014) where members who share the same political ideologies re-echo claims by other members of the group. The members in this group or chamber believe in and hold on to statements that align with their biases and any other information contrary to their beliefs is discounted.

According to extant literature (Flaxman, Goel & Rao, 2016), echo-chambers have become a breeding ground for fake news and members are so loyal to one another such that information that stands at variance to their beliefs are treated with contempt. 

Media discussions on fact-checked information

According to R4 ‘our ratings on a claim based on the findings we make were sometimes used as content for political talk programmes on radio especially and on other media platforms. Even on social media, shares we have for our fact-checked stories indicate that people do not just read but rebroadcast our findings for others to know about the truth or the falsity of a viral claim’.

The selected media for this study were at the forefront of combating fake news with verifiable facts. The media houses devoted a considerable number of hours in their programming schedule for airing of fact-checked materials to the general public. The premium placed on this exercise was again manifested by the publication of fact-checked information on all media platforms – online, radio and television – managed by the media organisation. 

‘My works are often published on our online portal but beyond that, it is sometimes used as part of content in our political programmes during the elections as well as television programmes on our networks. Other media houses even call to interview me on a particular findings I have come up with during a key political show or get published on online spaces’, says R1.

As a key actor in the development process, the media’s role in informing and educating largely strengthens efforts of the government in achieving its developmental goals. More so, the role it is playing in combating fake news in the information ecosystem will contribute to ensuring that messages that are circulated in public spaces are sacrosanct and devoid of falsehood. This will be a rallying point in engaging the citizenry in all developmental and decision making activities at all levels of the governance structure.

Fact-Checking: Challenges of Media Organisations

Challenges as encountered by the media organisations included difficulty in accessing information from official sources, unwillingness of public officials to speak on a subject, lack of adequate funding, and lack of interest by editors to publish stories and political ownership of media houses.

‘One of the challenges I have doing this work has come from within. Sometimes editors will drop a story for fear of the media house being aligned to one political party or the other. Sometimes your story is not published at all and no explanations come even when you follow up. Though this was a challenge for a long time, gradually my works on fact-checking are being published on our platform,’ R1 recounted.

Corroborating this assertion, R4 also indicates that ‘sometimes you belong to a media house where the owner of the business is aligned to one political party. Often, such a media house does not take kindly to doing works that tend to undermine their course.’

This revelation brings to the fore the impact of media ownership on programming in media organisations. Media ownership and control has often been cited as a development that undermines the independence of the media. According to Petković (2004), media owners are in a position to influence media content, and the mere possibility that they would choose to exert such influence justifies the need for restrictions in the exercise of their authority on the media they control. Petković argues that their motives may be political, ideological, personal or commercial, but the outcome is the same – influence on content.

In Ghana, it is a common phenomenon that media organisations that are known to be aligned to major political parties broadcast news content that re-echo the position of the party and any other information that tends to put the political party in a bad light is often not given air space on their platforms.

Again, other challenges such as access to information and the willingness of government officials to speak on an issue being fact-checked has been a common hurdle that media organisations are confronted with on a daily basis. Respondent 5 recounts the frustrations they have to go through to get information from official sources to do professional work. ‘The nature of the work requires that you counter false information with the truth. In situations where you cannot get the supporting document to debunk a claim for instance, you are forced to drop the story rather than repeating what will turn out to be a lie instead’.

Fact-Checking: Sustainability Plan by Media Organisations

For the media houses, there are no policies by way of documentation on the sustainability plan for integrating fact-checking into the main scheme of work of the organisations. Fact-checking was most prominent an exercise during the election period and most of the media houses though have not abandoned the exercise, much attention has been shifted to mainstream reporting.

According to R2, his media house has not set up a desk dedicated to fact-checking as against other genres such as sports, entertainment, politics etc. Though this is non-existent, fact-checking has been accepted as one of the tasks the newsroom performs and fact-checked stories are published once work is completed on the verification of a claim. 

Respondent 2 further asserts that ‘the media organisation has not set up any desk purposely focusing on fact-checking. After some training, I enrolled as a trainee fact-checker, I took up the challenge and has since been doing fact-checking for the organisation. In order to ensure that my absence does not spell the end of fact-checking in my organisation, I have started training one junior reporter to build his capacity to take up the work in future. The institution has not as a matter of policy, set up a specialized desk that is solely dedicated to fact checking’.

Respondent one alludes to the fact that his media organisation had no place for fact-checking until he took it up in addition to his daily routine reporting duties. He argues that the lack of specialized desks as in the case of other genres of reporting in the newsroom tends to jeopardize the existence of fact-checking in the media. 

‘I took up the challenge of fact-checking as a journalist and initially it was not well embraced within my media set up perhaps it is something new there. However, overtime with the kind of tractions we get when we publish such stories, my organisation has made it a core part of reporting. Though there is no special desk like a fact checking desk, the recognition of fact-checking is for me a commitment by the organisation to see it as part of our portfolio of reporting,’ R1 said.

Though the evidence points to lack of a clear sustainability plan by the media organisations to maintain fact-checking as a specialized desk in the newsroom, its integration into news reporting shows a level of commitment by the media organisations to maintain the exercise as part of mainstream reporting. 

Conclusion

The media and media messages are critical in shaping opinions of media audiences. As a conduit for informing and educating, the role of fact-checking aimed at authenticating claims in order to inform and educate the populace is a step that is believed to advance the cause of democracy and development of a country.

To the extent that fake news has brought about many individuals being misled and losing confidence in media messages, fact-checking statements in the public domain and reporting accordingly will not only purge the media of the tag of a machinery being exploited to propagate falsehood and other misleading claims but rather as a trustworthy agent for development.

Consensus keeps building between the media and the general public that the way to ensuring that the information ecosystem is devoid of fake news is by adopting fact-checking as a needed intervention for not only addressing the challenges that fake news poses but to serve as a discouragement for individuals who may want to use fake information to prosecute their agenda.

Again, the gradual shifting of fact-checking into the arena of journalistic practice in Ghana is  a response to advocacy by stakeholders for the media to take the lead in removing  the canker of fake news in public discourse. The evidence of fact-checking being embraced by media organisations largely signifies steps being taken to address the challenge head on.

Recommendations

The study recommends the following as steps to ensuring that the media is empowered to continue combating fake information circulating in public spaces:

  • There is the need for the media and civil society organisations to demand full implementation in compliance of the information law in Ghana. This will help address challenges researchers encounter in their effort to access public documents to assist in their work;
  • The media must create special and adequately resourced desks for fact-checking as part of their commitment to combating fake news in the information ecosystem.
  • Regulatory bodies like the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) must regularly engage media owners and editors to sensitize them to the need to commit to ensuring the independence of journalists plying their trade in a media organisation.

References 

Ballotpedia (2011). Our Fact-Check Process. Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/The_methodologies_of_fact-checking#cite_note-principles-2

Dubawa, Ghana (2019) Retrieved From https://ghana.dubawa.org/about-us/our-fact-check-process/E4impact foundation (2019). Profile on Starr FM. Retrieved from 

https://e4impact.org/partners/starr-103-5-fm/)

Flaxman S., Goel, S. & Rao, M. J (2016). Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News 

Consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, pp. 298–320. Retrieved from https://5harad.com/papers/bubbles.pdf

Pangrazio, L. (2018). What’s New about ‘Fake News’? Critical Digital Literacies in an Era of 

Fake News, Post-Truth and Clickbait. Retrieved from http://www.scielo.edu.uy/pdf/pe/v11n1/1688-7468-pe-11-01-6.pdf

Petković B. (ed) (2004). Media Ownership and Its Impact on Media Independence and

Pluralism. Peace Institute, Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies. Ljubljana, Slovenia, Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/53126508.pdf

Reporters without Borders (2017). Media Ownership Monitor. Retrieved from 

https://www.mom-rsf.org/en/countries/ghana/

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2018). Journalism, Fake 

News & Misinformation. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/journalism_fake_news_disinformation_print_friendly_0.pdf

World economic forum (2016). Digital Media and Society Implications in a Hyperconnected Era. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEFUSA_DigitalMediaAndSociety_Report2016.pdf

Yusuf, N, Al-Banawi. N. & Al-Imam. R.A.H (2014). The Social Media as Echo Chamber: The 

Digital Impact. Journal of Business & Economics Research, First Quarter, Vo12 (1). Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/268112649.pdf

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