Fact Checking: Generating Open-minded Scepticism

The Net is both a blessing and a curse

This article is reproduced with the courtesy of Africa Check, a non-partisan organisation that promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck.

It is never going to be possible – or desirable – for one organisation to set itself up to fact-check every claim made. But the Africa Check team aims to check the evidence behind some of the important claims that are made in public. But, as the cartoon suggests, nobody can do everything.

For fact checks the net is both a blessing and a curse

For fact checks the net is both a blessing and a curse

So the AC broader goal is to encourage others to check claims that are made too.

The Sceptical Reflex

Busy as people tend to be these days, it is often easier – for a journalist, a researcher, a public servant, or a businesswoman – to take a claim that is made in public as given. In the course of our work to date, we have seen this done by allies in the media, by the courts, and by the public at large.

This is unfortunate, as it allows those who would, wittingly or otherwise, mislead us all to do so with relative impunity.

It is important in fighting against this not to give in to cynicism. Just because some politicians, some media houses, some businesses and others seek to mislead, it does not mean they all do. And because one does on one issue, it does not mean they are, necessarily, doing so on another one.

Instead, of cynicism, what we hope to generate is open-minded scepticism. Whether you are a judge or a journalist, a businesswoman or a health worker, to question – not dismiss – the claims that are made, until reliable, verifiable evidence is shown to back up the claim.

What To Ask

In order to produce reports, Africa Check uses their own experience as journalists, and the help and assistance of specialist experts in a range of fields, to draw up some tips and advice on how to fact-check, starting with the key questions.

Where is the evidence? Is the evidence verifiable? And is the evidence sound?

How was the information gathered? When? By whom? What biases should the journalist, judge or businesswoman look out for in how the information is collected and reported? These are all topics addressed in the AC ‘Tips and advice’.

Fact checking, the Holy Grail of investigative journalism.

Fact checking, the Holy Grail of investigative journalism.

Where To Look

From their efforts researching claims made, they know the other big key is to know where to look.

This is why AC is building up a library of guides and factsheets for journalists to use as sources of reliable data on key questions.

And it is why they provide in their ‘Resources’ link, a searchable guide to the data sources they have found most useful in their work to date.

Africa Check is not and cannot, of course, be responsible for the accuracy of the data in all these sources. They are third parties, and obviously they cannot and will not vouch for their accuracy on every issue. Besides, judgements about what data is accurate and what ‘s inaccurate are rarely simple, but coloured in various shades of grey.

Journalists are asked to maintain their sceptical reflexes when assessing the accuracy of the data sources provide and the claims people make.

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