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Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, claimed earlier this week that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer failed to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile when he was director of public prosecutions (DPP). Fact-checking organisation Full Fact has since disproved the claim.

As the PM spoke in the Parliament, the statement was broadcast and went quickly viral on social media. This put journalists in a tricky position: on the one hand, there was an official figure saying false claims that they needed to cover. But repeating the untruth will make it travel further and reinforce the message in readers’ minds.

The Mail Online ran an explainer box alongside its reporting on the exchange, BBC has examined the claim in its Reality Check section and other outlets have referred readers to the Full Fact investigation.

The point is, there is no easy or foolproof way to report on false official statements.

The story marks an increasing trend in journalism where both reporting and analysis of the facts are necessary for all sources of information, even those deemed ‘official’. And preferably at the same time.

Fact-checking charities have long been advocating for more stringent scrutiny and presentation of dubious information, regardless of its source.

Director of First Draft, an organisation tackling disinformation, professor Claire Wardle said: "It’s no longer possible to take official sources as ’truth’.

"We’ve seen too many people and organisations take advantage of their official status to push falsehoods and misleading content."

Journalists need to be clear with their audiences about the fact-checking that makes up their reporting, explains Wardle.

"They should include fact-checking in the reporting rather than simply suggesting – trust me, I’m a journalist."

Wardle acknowledges that accusing an official source of pushing false or misleading information requires a higher bar, but that this should not dissuade reporters from doing so.

"Backfire effect"

The catch is that, sometimes, telling people that what they believe in is false can make them double down on their beliefs. Evidence to support this ‘backfire effect’ is weak, but it gives journalists a framework to shape their fact-checking.

As long as the audience is warned before reading a falsehood, explains Wardle, there should be no serious risk of the reader absorbing it as fact.

Berkeley linguist George Lakoff came up with the concept of ‘truth sandwich’: lead with the truth, briefly explain the falsehood, then fact-check and reaffirm the truth.

Journalists should use this approach beyond the article itself. The meat of the piece can be responsibly written but if the accompanying headlines, imagery or social media posts focus on the falsehood, the backfire effect is more likely.

Truth will out

Journalists must add context to statements from official sources such as politicians when part of the story may have been omitted.

Abbas Panjwani, a journalist for Full Fact said: "It’s not that we think everything that they say is wrong, but we know that there is a high likelihood that something might have been missed out.

"What they say might be technically accurate, but the implication of what they are saying might not be."

Panjwani explains that limited resources and available information mean some politicians do not properly research the claims they are making.

If this is the case, it is best to measure the claim against official statistics and government publications which, says Panjwani, are far more trustworthy.

He cites recent claims by Boris Johnson around increased employment rates. The prime minister’s assertion that employment rates have improved throughout the pandemic was inaccurate, according to the data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

After sustained reporting by Full Fact, the prime minister started to use the terms and employment figures correctly, said Panjwani.

Full Fact and First Draft, along with initiatives like BBC Reality Check and Reuters Fact Check provide strong examples of how journalists can present their fact-checking work.

Common sense and intuition are crucial, explained Panjwani. Fact-checkers must be able to gauge what can and can not be believed and express that to their readers.

Panjwani recommends looking out for information that may serve the source directly, or damage any opposition.

Including links to sources of information in an article will develop trust in its content, as will explaining the potential limitations of data or research. Panjwani says that Mail Online’s science section does this particularly well, with clear links to the source material at the bottom of each webpage.

Still, it remains a big ask for readers to delve into the data. Readers are implicitly trusting journalists to have checked the facts themselves.

"They’re going to be trusting the newspaper that they chose to read,” Said Panjwani. “Because they are assuming that someone is doing the due diligence."

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