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Just the Facts

Politics and the New Journalism

In Freedom House’s recent ranking of worldwide press freedom, Morocco came in 147 out of 197 countries. Although a new constitution, passed in 2011, supposedly guarantees freedom of the press, the government has been slow to implement the reforms that would support that right. Clear but unofficial red lines remain in place on discussing the monarchy, the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and Islam, and so journalists walk a fine line. 

But a Moroccan nongovernmental organization called Capdema, which receives a grant from the U.S. State Department, hopes to shake up the political and journalistic status quo by creating a website that will check the claims of government officials. In doing so, Capdema will join a number of new such services across the globe; according to data assembled by Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab, more than 80 have been established since 2010. 

The trend kicked off in the United States, largely in response to the domestic media’s failure to properly vet the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. There are now three main fact-checking organizations based in the United States: FactCheck.org, founded in 2003 in affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania; PolitiFact, created in 2007 by the Tampa Bay Times; and The Fact Checker, created in 2007 by The Washington Post. Countless local newspapers and television channels run their own on-air fact-checking programs, especially during election seasons. 

In the United States, fact-checking really came into its own during the 2012 presidential election, as fact-checkers exposed misleading claims by the Barack Obama campaign about Mitt Romney’s business record and numerous Romney claims about the economy and the bailout of the auto industry. At one point, Romney’s pollster even declared that “we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” And both the campaigns hired designated spokespeople to handle queries from the fact-checkers. Stories about the impact of the checks appeared on international media, spreading the idea overseas. 

Now this new form of journalism has truly gone global. There are fact-checkers in almost every part of the world—in the United Kingdom, Italy, and almost all of the Balkan countries, in South Africa and Egypt, in India and South Korea. In Chile, a fact-checking group called El Polígrafo revealed that several presidential candidates had fabricated their resumés. The Argentine crowdsourcing organization Chequeado is assembling its own database of statistics because data from government sources are suspect. 

The disparate groups have even started to work together. In 2014, fact-checkers formed an international association, after scores of them came together for a meeting in London last June. And when G-20 leaders met in Australia in November, fact-checkers from around the globe combined forces as well. News organizations from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Italy, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States vetted the statements of leaders at the summit, producing the world’s first global fact-check. 

The revelations of the factcheckathon, as it was called, should come as no surprise. It turned out that many world leaders liked to exaggerate the economic record of their countries, especially when speaking to other world leaders. To be sure, fact-checkers do not necessarily expect to change this behavior of politicians. Instead, their goal is to educate citizens about critical policy issues. If people are better informed, the thinking goes, they will make better choices. 

Political fact-checking has thus become an essential component of independent journalism in a democratic society. It teaches both politicians and voters that there is something called ground truth—facts that are not in dispute and can create a base level of knowledge for evaluating statements made by government officials and opposition figures. This is especially important in countries where traditional media has been reluctant to challenge authority and journalistic standards vary widely. Fact-checking has the potential to quickly raise the level of political discourse and the quality of journalism. Huge investments in infrastructure are not necessary; all advocates need is a website and some dedicated professionals. 

There is no one model for effective fact-checking, except a commitment to unbiased reporting and equal scrutiny of all politicians. Some organizations are affiliated with major newspapers or television stations (such as ABC Fact Check in Australia); many others are connected to nongovernmental organizations. Independent firms, however, often struggle with funding and sustainability. 

No matter the organizational structure, fact-checking organizations typically identify a politician’s statement, usually involving numbers, as questionable or subject to scrutiny. Then the fact-checker will identify the source of the information and evaluate its credibility. Fact- checkers may also check whether the politician has used the figures with the proper context. Fact-checking thus puts the onus on the politician to justify his or her claim.

About three-quarters of fact-checking organizations have rating systems that judge the level of “truthiness.” The Fact Checker, for instance, awards “Pinocchios” in a reverse of the star system of movie and restaurant reviews; more Pinocchios means greater inaccuracy. Obama, for instance, earned Four Pinocchios for claiming that he was not referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham terrorist group when he mentioned terrorism’s “JV” team; a previously unreleased transcript showed otherwise. And Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earned Four Pinocchios for claiming that Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) unknowingly met with ISIS figures when he traveled to Syria to meet with rebel forces. But other organizations have rejected such rating systems as too subjective or gimmicky. They prefer to let the analysis of the misleading claim stand on its own. (Capdema, which plans to call its site The Referee, will use symbols from soccer, such as a red or yellow card, as a rating system.) 

Almost all fact-checkers rely on social media, either as a source of information or as a means of distribution. StopFake, a website based in Ukraine, focuses on puncturing myths and exposing Russian propaganda that springs up in social media. Meanwhile, FactCheckEU, a Belgium website that monitors statements by European parliamentarians, accepts reader-contributed fact-checks, translations from readers, and even votes on the rating for the politician’s statement. 

Another fact-checking innovation is a “promise tracker,” which keeps track of how well a leader is meeting commitments he or she had made before election day. In the United States, PolitiFact keeps close tabs on the more than 500 promises made by Obama when he ran for president in 2008 and 2012. The “Obamameter” shows that 45 percent of his promises have been kept and 24 percent resulted in a compromise. But 116 promises—22 percent—were broken. In Egypt, the Morsi Meter tracked the 64 promises the now ousted president said he would achieve in his first 100 days. (He ended up completing ten.) The same technology has been used to create a Rouhani Meter, which is following the campaign promises of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (He’s achieved ten percent of his promises—and 36 percent are listed as “in progress.”)

Now it is Morocco’s turn. At the request of the State Department, in December I spent a week in Morocco training Capdema staff and speaking to journalism students around the country about political fact-checking. There was tremendous interest and curiosity in the fact-checking concept, but many people expressed fears about how the government would react.

In one recent case, a Moroccan journalist was charged with criminal defamation after he published hotel bills showing that an Islamist minister had arranged a lavish dinner, where alcohol was provided, during an official trip to Burkina Faso. The case appeared mainly designed to inspire self-censorship among journalists, who would fear heavy fines or prison sentences for publishing controversial articles. 

But, as I told audiences in Morocco, fact-checking can operate well within country-specific red lines and still make a difference by focusing on issues that matter to ordinary citizens—such as government statements about the state of the economy, the budget deficit, health care, pension systems, and so on. Disciplined and accurate reporting on those issues could possibly open up the space to begin to tackle subjects that are otherwise off-limits.

The worldwide emergence of fact-checking websites demonstrates that an important niche is being filled. The movement is only in its infancy, but the impact in countries without a strong tradition of investigative reporting and government oversight could be profound. 

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