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Holding public figures to account has always been one of the central tenets of journalism and digital tools have made it quicker and easier to fact check claims made by politicians or businesses.

At the International Journalism Festival on Saturday, Bill Adair, Knight Professor at Duke University and founder of US fact-checking site PolitiFact, told delegates that there are now 45 active fact-checking sites worldwide, with 27 set up since January 2012.

"None are free-standing profitable businesses," he said, as the majority are funded by foundations or have links to larger media organisations, "but it is vital public service journalism."

Joined by Peter Cunliffe-Jones, executive director of Africa Check; Pietro Curatolo, co-founder of Fact Check EU; and director of UK-based Full Fact Will Moy, Adair led a panel on some of the more prescient factors that surround fact checking and their pros and cons.

Ratings

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Screenshot from PolitiFact.com showing the claimant on the left and Truth-o-meter on the right

Researchers at PolitiFact rate their facts on a 'Truth-o-Meter' from 'True' to 'Pants on Fire', a system which Adair said generates interest and makes the sometimes dry nature of US politics more accessible to the wider population.

Ratings "give people a certain amount of information in a concise space" he said, and while the facts and detail provide the "broccoli", a ratings system is the "french fries" that makes fact checking more attractive and digestible.

Adair is a firm proponent of the ratings system, but Moy, while stressing his respect for PolitiFact, said he "viscerally dislikes" the rating system, insisting that by fact checking claims rather than people – "playing the ball, not the man" – the result is more objective.

FactCheckEU, an organisation established to "not only act as a watchdog, but also create awareness of EU politics", said Curatolo, also has a rating system, from "True' to "Insane Whopper".

It is not without its flaws though, he said.

"We do have some difficulties in rating things as there are different nuances that are hard to capture with a rating system," Curatolo said, "but it's a clear and direct way of communicating something with readers."

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Screenshot from FactCheckEU.org showing the ratings system where false claims are made

Another drawback was that occasionally readers "become more attracted to reading the whoppers and not some of the more nuanced analysis", he said, running the risk of missing the point.

"People do need to see a serious standard for evaluation" though, he argued.

Africa Check doesn't have ratings, said Cunliffe-Jones, "but we do try to provide a conclusion" that will normally come in the headline, "providing a conclusion at the top and a longer, more argued [conclusion] at the bottom".

Although he did not offer an opinion on the use of ratings, Cunliffe-Jones added that "If we can do a shorter, snappier one that is methodologically credible then we will".

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing plays a large role at Fact Check EU, as readers can upload statements they want fact checking; submit their own fact check, which Curatolo and his team will review before publishing; or help with translation into the six languages the site currently publishes in.

Again Curatolo recognised that this gave "mixed results" as submissions may be opinionated or show bias, or the analysis itself may be weak.

"But we don't want to discourage people," he said, as having a community of contributors "adds value", "so we go back and point things out".

"The hope is that users will gradually become more experienced and will improve and contribute to a better product," he said.

Although Moy said Full Fact used to have a function called "suggest a fact", he added that any more involvement from readers could prove problematic.

"To keep it up to our standards we would have to do the whole thing again," he said, "because of the level of understanding necessary to make sure it is correct."

As well as investigating claims and publishing results, Cunliffe-Jones said Africa Check tried to "encourage and enable" fact checking by others in the African media.

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Screenshot from AfricaCheck.org

"We believe we're the first fact-checking site operating in Africa," he said. "It's not a common thing in African media so we're also trying to stimulate and encourage others to do the same."

One method of doing this is with The African Fact Checking Awards, in conjunction with one of the site's existing partners AFP Foundation, inviting reporters and presenters from African media outlets to submit reports that have "exposed misleading claims made by leading public figures" for a €2,000 prize with tips, resources and guidelines to help.

Africa Check has also always allowed people to submit suggestions or information, but with a caveat.

"We don't just do whatever people send in," he said, "but need to retain our neutrality by checking different sides in proportion."

Adair agreed that suggesting claims to investigate was useful – at PolitiFact one third of reports are suggested from readers – but any further involvement would take too much work.

Distribution

For Moy, the most important part of the job is in getting the checked claims out to a wider audience. Television is still the main source of news for 74 per cent of people in the UK, he said, so fact checkers need to build connections to make sure their work is getting out.

"We're finding that although our core material is not as strongly expressed as PolitiFact's output," he said, "we can adapt what we do from BuzzFeed to Radio 4."

At the start of April, Full Fact ran a liveblog to accompany the Clegg and Farage EU debates, followed by a fact-checking video and a BuzzFeed post highlighting some of the central accuracies in the politicians' speeches.

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  • We spoke to both Moy and Cunliffe-Jones, as well as Sara Carothers, project manager for TruthTeller at the Washington Post, about their approaches to fact checking in this podcast from last year.

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