"Perhaps it’s too early for us to surrender to the idea that we are now living in a post-truth world."
Patrick Worrall, writer and researcher at Channel 4's FactCheck, outlined some of the challenges facing fact-checkers in today’s media landscape, speaking at the News Xchange event in Denmark yesterday (30 November).
As a growing conversation in media circles revolves around adapting to post-truth politics, he is cautiously optimistic.
"Perhaps this post-fact thing is still a developing news story, and like other big news stories of today, there are twists and turns still to come. There may be surprises and reverses of fortune.
"There's nothing inevitable about people rejecting the facts, there doesn't have to be anything inevitable or irreversible about declining public trust in journalism.
"As journalists and fact-checkers in particular, we are in a position to not only document these trends but we actually have the opportunity to change them through the work we do. And now is not the time for us to give up."
Channel 4’s fact-checking efforts are most visible through Twitter, where the team fact-checks live events.
Factchecked: The Autumn Statement. pic.twitter.com/2xT7T2Qvha— C4 News FactCheck (@FactCheck) November 23, 2016
Fact-checking in its current form was popularised in the United States by sites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, but the practice has rapidly expanded throughout the world, with more than 100 organisations now operating around the globe.
A report recently published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that there are currently at least 34 political fact-checking organisations active in Europe.
But why do we need the “special label” of fact-checking? Isn’t fact-checking part of every journalist’s job?
“The idea is that we are coming down on one side or the other, and that can be a difficult thing to do,” said Worrall, pointing out that the emphasis on impartiality in news organisations may prevent journalists from giving a verdict on certain claims.
He also outlined the key considerations for news organisations thinking about starting their own fact-checking teams, from the character traits of the people most suited to the task to the concerns about the impact of the fact-checking overall.
He said fact-checkers need to be enthusiastic and open to taking risks, as teams who undertake this type of work are often scrutinised even more carefully than other media and can make enemies easily.
News organisations also need to understand that fact-checking "is a reactive format – we depend on people saying stuff," which can make it a tough sell to editors in quieter times.
This means fact-checking teams need to be resourced to be able to survive the downtimes in between elections and other major events.
A study by fact-checking researchers Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler at the University of Exeter, commissioned by the American Press Institute, found that "exposure to fact-checking had a positive effect on accuracy".
But one of the biggest challenges facing fact-checkers at present is retaining the public's trust.
Worrall addressed a statement from Conservative politician and Vote Leave supporter Michael Gove, who said "Britain has had enough of experts" during the EU referendum campaign in the UK.
For Worrall, this is a worrying trend, as the fact-checkers' work relies heavily on experts.
"We increasingly as journalists are being lobbed in with this expert class," he said, "the 'patronising urban elite'".
He pointed out fact-checkers are particularly vulnerable in this case as they are often attached to large legacy media organisations or academic insitutions.
"To a lot of people we epitomise the liberal elite and it's really hard for them to believe we don't serve our own interests," he said.
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