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"There is no point in getting started with debunking and fact-checking processes in your newsroom if you haven't categorised what you're talking about. So, the big question is, do you actually know what you're dealing with?"

The first thing journalists should be aware of is that there are many types of content that can be debunked, said Mark Frankel, social media editor for BBC News. He spoke at the International Journalism Festival in Italy last week (7 April), alongside Alison Gow, digital innovation editor for Trinity Mirror Regionals.

Problematic content can include misleading or fabricated stories, false context or manipulated material, satire and parody, or simply "poor journalism", he added.

"Fabricated content is easier, you just find it and expose it, such as the story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, but misleading content can be much harder to get to the bottom of."

News organisations are putting their competitive instincts aside and working together for the sake of transparencyMark Frankel, BBC News

An example of a false context story is this video of a female cyclist allegedly taking revenge after being verbally abused on a busy street in London – the agency that produced it eventually released a statement saying the video may be fake.

When it comes to parody or satire, like this Newsthump article about actor Harrison Ford being told to "let Chewbacca do the flying from now on", the content is not false or manipulated, Frankel said, but it is still "being played down" in the Facebook newsfeed "due to the algorithm changes and our desire to get to the bottom of the problem".

Dispelling myths collaboratively and individually

The BBC has taken three approaches to debunking: writing articles that expose myths, launching a new unit called Reality Check and working with other news organisations as part of CrossCheck, a collaborative verification project to help French voters understand which information about the upcoming French election is true and which isn't.

When the Nice attack or the recent incidents in Sweden happened, two journalists on Frankel's team focused solely on "dispelling the myths" by verifying claims and publishing articles about them, while the rest of the team dealt with the reporting and coverage.

In January, BBC created Reality Check, a new unit with its own team for "fact-checking stories that we feel our audiences could use some literacy on, whether that's Brexit or Article 50".

"We go through what we know and what we don't, what we should and what we could know, and this has become a new strand of our online journalism. We're also branding posts on social media with the Reality Check stamp."

With CrossCheck, BBC and the 38 other newsrooms involved look at stories trending online and their sources, and exchange information through Slack channels dedicated to different types of materials, such as images or announcements related to the French election.

When one organisation writes a piece or a series verifying a claim, such as this 'Fake news: Five French election stories debunked' from BBC, it is shared collaboratively with everyone, Frankel said.

"News organisations are putting their competitive instincts aside and working together for the sake of transparency and, as cliché as it may sound, it's not about being first but about being right."

Debunking claims with fewer resources

At Trinity Mirror, local and regional news outlets don't have a lot of resources, Gow said, so the approach to debunking has to be effective and consistent across all titles. She outlined the following fact-checking and verification methods:

  • contacting sources for more details and proof and always trying three-point verification: who else can substantiate the claim?

  • looking for other trusted sources involved

  • searching for the claim on Google and internally – the topic may have come up in your area before or the source may have contacted the newsroom in the past

  • crowdsourcing information about the topic from your audiences on social media

  • for fake websites, looking for 'contact us' or 'about', using WhoIs to check their domains and doing a Page Rank check on Google – "if Google doesn't rank the site, be careful"

Sorting the signal from the noise is very important. Hashtags fill up fast in breaking newsAlison Gow, Trinity Mirror Regionals

To avoid unnecessary costs when using images, both Frankel and Gow said newsrooms should use tools such as TinEye, Google reverse image search, Regex Info, Google Maps and Google Street View to see where pictures originate from and verify the location they are claimed to come from. She also pointed out that journalists should only trust their own screengrabs and not accept those sent by sources, which can be easily altered.

"Sorting the signal from the noise is very important. Hashtags fill up fast in breaking news and there's a huge volume of information," Gow said, adding that it's always worth taking a step back and checking details of Twitter accounts participating in the conversation, such as profile picture, location, pinned tweet and language.

And finally, if your newsroom has been caught out using problematic material, Gow advised not deleting the original post, but instead publishing a correction and reaching out to people on Facebook and Twitter to make them aware of the error.

"In a small newsroom when you're racing to get information, you have to slow down and not worry about being first because it takes a second to destroy your reputation."

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