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A fact-checking site for Africa which has focused on South Africa since its launch late last year, is expanding to include fact-checking reports for Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland.

Africa Check was initially launched after being named one of the winners of the International Press Institute (IPI) News Innovation Contest, using the grant - funded by Google - to get started and support the first stage of its operation.

While it focused on South Africa to start with, having received additional funding from the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa and the African News Innovation Challenge, it is now "looking to broaden out".

The first step is to branch out into the three new countries with its reporting, but the team has also set its sights on further expansion into east and west Africa soon.

Passion for accuracy

Africa Check was set up by the AFP Foundation, with the purpose of promoting "non-partisan, accurate reporting", director Peter Cunliffe-Jones told Journalism.co.uk.

"We've all seen what's happening with the fact-checking movement in the US, in the UK, in Europe and elsewhere, but it's something that hadn't really taken off in developing countries," he said. "That was something we wanted to do something about."

The project's editor for South Africa is investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer, who is also supported by a researcher in-house and will soon be joined by a new deputy editor. The project is based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, with journalism school professor Anton Harber - who co-founded the now-named South African newspaper Mail & Guardian - also taking an advisory role.

Cunliffe-Jones said it was important that the project worked with a journalism school such as this, so that this "culture" is encouraged within the training environment, not just within the newsroom.

"Part of the aim of the project is to run the website and carry out fact-checking ourselves, but a big part of it is to promote the culture of fact-checking amongst working journalists, but also amongst those who are going to be coming into the profession."

The team also liaise with independent researchers, and while the expanded site will still be run by the Johannesburg team, they will reach out to local journalists within the new countries to help with research, Cunliffe-Jones explained.

The fact-checking process

When it comes to selecting which claims to check, the team use specific "criteria" to hunt out those most worth investigating, and the public can make suggestions too.

The criteria for claims include them being of "great public interest", something which would have "great impact on society" if not investigated and "a matter of public debate".

Tweets, for example, by someone with just a handful of Twitter followers, is "not going to make any great significant difference to society", Cunliffe-Jones explained. "If the president is saying that, it does have an impact."

And in order to appeal to public interest, the team are only interested in "claims that are made in public by public leaders".

"It can be politicians, it can be business leaders, it can be media houses, it can be any sort of people in prominence in public life that fall into three broad areas: one is politics, justice and society, the other one is business and the economy, and the third is health, science and the environment."

And balance is important too, and so the site, for example, will check claims made by both the governing party and the opposition, he explained.

"We fact-check claims made by trade unions, but we also fact-check claims made by businesses. We're not interested in fact-checking purely one side of an argument, we want to fact-check both sides."

Encouraging a questioning approach to information

When delivering its results, Africa Check offers key facts at the top right-hand side of the article, as well as a detailed report on its findings.

This opens with the claim, before addressing the evidence backing it up, and any evidence which puts it in doubt, ending with a conclusion. In some cases, it may be that all the evidence supports the claim.

And throughout the report, the reader is offered links to the sources of evidence and information, encouraging them to continue to be curious about the details being presented to them - a key aim of the project.

"A crucial part of what we're trying to to is to get people to question what's put before them," Cunliffe-Jones said.

"Every time we come to a conclusion about something we do put links to sources all the way through. We're not asking people to trust us, we're asking people to trust the evidence. That's crucial."

Lessons learned so far


Initially, some had doubts about whether a fact-checking platform like this could work in Africa, and Cunliffe-Jones admitted that it has been "challenging".

"Because of the relative scarcity of good reliable sources of information, it has been a challenge to come up with clear conclusions about some of the claims that have been made," he said. "But on the other hand, if you do dig into topics as we have done it's not impossible.

"When we started mooting the project a lot of people said 'well it's very nice in theory but can you really do this in Africa?' And the answer is yes."

And Africa Check hopes more news outlets will adopt this "culture of fact-checking". The Washington Post, for example, this year launched a prototype of TruthTeller, which fact-checks video and audio of politicians.

"Everybody involved with [Africa Check] has a media background," Cunliffe-Jones said. "We completely support the idea and are seeking to promote the culture of fact-checking within the media, within media organisations.

"For as long as the media does not do this itself, we think there's a place for independent organisations. In many ways it is difficult to draw a strict definition between what is a non-profit organisation, set up as we are, publishing a website, producing reports about events in the news, and a media website and a newspaper's website and so on."

But, he added, the team is "working with quite a number of newspaper groups in South Africa", to try and encourage this practice further.

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