As a fact-checker, the facts are the story: @MediaActive reports

ABC

By Peter Clarke

19 August 2013

Half-way through the second week of the 2013 federal election campaign, the ABC’s vaunted fact-checking unit finally went live – on-air and online.

You would be forgiven for asking ‘why not earlier?’ It’s a fair question. The other two principal Australian based fact-checking outfits, Politifact Australia and the election fact check unit at The Conversation have been displaying their wares and vigorously marking out their territory during the election so far as the ABC’s unit, admittedly a much larger and richer set-up, worked through the minutiae of sorting out their in-house infrastructure and the details of the approach to their mission.

This has included very practical preparations such as creating television logos and graphics and placing the dozen or so team members into harness.  As a behemoth broadcast news organisation in a continually evolving digital environment, the ABC deploys the most traditional of twentieth century mass media – radio and television – and the newest of those continually cross-breeding digital media forms and platforms via the internet and mobile devices.

The new fact-checking unit will deliver its own “branded content” via all these media and, eventually, others yet to emerge. ABC Television, with its existing mass audiences for scheduled or rolling news bulletins, will play a key role in establishing the new unit’s hoped for authority and reputation for trustworthiness and reliability.

That aspirational reputation took a few hits early on during the FCU’s gestation. Veteran journalist, Russell Skelton, was appointed to the position of Editor of the fact-checking unit. Coalition Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, took the opportunity of a Senate Estimates Committee hearing to highlight some pungent or “strident” tweets by Skelton and accuse him of being incapable of projecting the objectivity and independence required by the job. ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott strongly defended the appointment and Skelton citing once again the rigour and comprehensive reach of the ABC Editorial Policies to ensure the quality and authenticity of the ABC’s fact-checking processes.

Mind you, more workshopping and attention to detail may be necessary as the ABC FCU cranks up its operation. John Barron, the face of the FCU, told me “there are more than enough facts to go around”. There certainly are. Whatever your own definition of a fact might be.  Why then has the ABC  FCU in its first gallop around the fact-checking arena doubled up on an earlier fact-check by The Conversation about asylum seekers.

Some of the other ABC FCU targets appear to generally follow The Conversation verdicts especially on economic themes. What is the ideal here? For all fact-checking units to be monitoring the others closely to avoid repetition or close to it, not just out of courtesy but to spread precious research resources further? If (when?) two fact-checking units target the same assertion or issue and come up with different verdicts, will that undermine the perceived reliability of the whole deal?

I spoke at length to John Barron for an Inside Story podcast.

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He echoed Scott’s defence of his boss, naturally, contrasting Skelton’s role at Fairfax, when he posted the tweets in question, and now under the ABC’s editorial regime.

Skelton, for his part, also shrugs off the attacks: “I have a lot of faith in news consumers.  When that controversy was blazing around me, I had tremendous support from all sorts of different quarters including friends in the Liberal Party. I think you wear it. You make sure you’re producing the best quality work, the most objective, the most incredibly accurate work you can and you let your audience decide on the values to be placed on it”.

The team of journalists, researchers and production staff Skelton leads brings considerable firepower to the task of fact-checking. It includes legal, financial and economic expertise and data crunching skills. Having the capacity to analyse and effectively communicate complex information buried in detailed data will be a key aspect of the unit’s work. This includes generating television and online graphics drawing upon some of the latest technologies and visual approaches.

Before we examine and discuss the Australian emerging fact-checking culture in more detail, we need to ask again  – what is a fact? And how do so-called facts relate to or connect us to that other elusive ideal in this post-modern era of cascading ambiguities – truth? 

That famous quote from the late Democratic US senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan,

Everyone is entitled to his [her] own opinion, but not to his [her] own facts

 seems to ring truer today than ever, especially during an election campaign where asserting what is plainly black is in fact  white is de rigeur. 

Early in my conversation with John Barron, I attempted to clarify what he and his colleagues might perceive facts to be or, at least their working definition by reading him this quote from The History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge by Mary Poovey:

What are facts? Are they incontrovertible data that simply demonstrate what is true? Or are they bits of evidence marshaled to persuade others of the theory one sets out with? Do facts somehow exist in the world like pebbles waiting to be picked up? Or are they manufactured and thus informed by all the social and personal factors that go into every act of human creation? Are facts beyond interpretation? Or are they the very stuff of interpretation, its systematic incarnation instead of the place where it begins?

 That quote contrasts two metaphors: one the sealed, autonomous, sufficient-unto-itself pebble – almost a truthy artefact. The other is about process and the construction of facts in a potent context and the often less obvious role of interpretation in identifying and verifying facts.

Barron laughed off my modest foray into “philosophy” and instead described in brief the fact-checking process or method adopted by the ABC’s FCU. Under their rubric, they home in on what is “verifiable, interesting and useful”.

JMK

A little circular you think? What becomes plain after talking with Barron and Skelton and, by extension, their fact-checking competitors at The Conversation and Politifact Australia is that their approach to the complex task of establishing facts for news consumers is rooted very much in the techniques of quite traditional journalistic practice.

There are echoes here of the fictional Joe Friday in the Dragnet series on radio and television in the fifties and sixties – Nothing but the facts ma’am! Ironically, the character never actually said that. He did say in an early episode,

All we want are the facts!

The more popular version of the catch-phrase was locked in by the later Stan Freberg parodies of Dragnet. 

The illusion of certainty!

The various dictionaries of quotations are replete with aphorisms and bon mots about the nature of truth and the “role” of facts. Thinkers and writers going back thousands of years have long been exercised by the labile relationship between facts and truth. 

The South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, deftly sums up our everyday, commonsense experience of this phenomenon:

The facts are always less than what really happened. 

The German theatre director and pioneer, Bertolt Brecht, while forging his Epic Theatre approach, spoke of “ten people watching a car crash”. Inevitably, each will recount the “facts” of the actuality differently according to each observer’s angle, perception and recollection.

Closer to home, we all experience that frisson of a deeper, sharper, often wicked truth when we consume the work of our political cartoonists or performance satirists. That happens despite their overt warping or distortion of so-called “facts”.

We all know that form of the oath taken in legal proceedings: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

In our legal system, fundamental decisions about competing versions of facts are left to a jury of our “peers”. Judges and lawyers deal with matters of law. What actually happens in a jury room and the process used to determine matters of fact are largely veiled from the public gaze. It is all somewhat magical and mysterious: the alchemy of strangers’ sorting the wheat from the chaff.

And even the benchmark of certainty varies between civil and criminal proceedings: beyond a reasonable doubt for the criminal law and on the balance of probabilities for civil cases.

I mention all this as a partial antidote to the many assumptions about facts and truth woven into the long standing ideologies and practices of journalists. They bear real scrutiny not just academically but practically. Perhaps that is happening just a little more now as the whole practice of journalism itself is battling such stormy seas. 

Several Australian commentators have already weighed in asking those basic and obvious questions comparing the factual reliability of daily grind journalism with the work of the emerging, Australian fact-checking units.

In an op-ed piece in The Guardian, journalist, Bronwen Clune, asks, “Does the popularity of these fact-checking sites suggest that journalism is failing to adequately perform its function?”

Tim Dunlop writing on The King’s Tribune site opines,

“That fact-checking is now being presented as a side-dish rather than an integral part of the normal meal of journalism is a reflection of the gutting of journalism that has occurred over the past decade or so.”

John Barron responds to these ideas by first admitting that even some of his own colleagues in the ABC news division have been musing, perhaps querulously, on the difference between what most of them do in terms of standard factual reporting and the “additional role” of the FCU.

I asked him “what does this say about the rest of the ABC journalistic output if the fact-checking unit is doing this extra work? Can we trust as much the rest of the output or do we trust the fact-checking unit more than the rest of the journalists?” While acknowledging the severe re-shaping and de-funding of journalism generally as part of the many and savage predations of the digital revolution, including the huge time pressures on contemporary journalists,  Barron sums up the difference this way: “As a journalist you are checking the facts that go into your story.  As a fact-checker, the facts are the story. There’s an important difference. We’re drilling down on a single point, analysing it in a short amount of time … focussing in, laser-like, we hope, on a particular issue, a particular statement, a particular assertion and saying ’what can we tell you about this’?”

The actual choice of a specific “issue, statement or assertion” and how that choice is made, especially in the white heat of a federal election campaign would seem to be critical. As Barron describes the ABC FCU choosing process, this too is deeply traditional – pitching “stories” to the Editor and the group: “It is important to identify if something is checkable, fact-checkable. Our process is … nine o’clock, we sit down, just as journalists have in newsrooms all around the world for generations. … all the team are there and we say ‘who’s got what for me?’ You’re pitching stories … they pitch it to our editor just as you would a news story at a newspaper or a television news bulletin editor.”

The focus of the process then is to identify something that is “verifiable” or not.

One assumes that the process also includes a continuing deep awareness of the ABC Editorial Policies around “balance and bias” on the part of the Editor and the FCU executive group (which includes Barron).

I suggest you check out the FCU’s initial findings or verdicts on the ABC fact-check site to draw your own conclusions about how that mandatory “balance” is unfolding so far.

There you will also be able to read the tone and content of citizen consumers’ comments. They augur what will surely be a feature of this emerging fact-checking culture and its processes in Australia: deep skepticism, unalloyed criticism and just plain disbelief around both the authenticity of the process of choosing the target of a fact-check and the published outcomes.

Conversation Fact Check Site

The Conversation election fact-checking unit set up especially for the current election, is headed up by the former editor of The Sunday Age, Gay Alcorn. She is also a regular Fairfax columnist writing more often that not about the media.

That unit is small  (two other associate editors, an intern, plus the editors of The Conversation overall) and relies on a very different process although the actual choosing of a fact-check target seems broadly similar to the ABC’s.

Their content is freely available, with attribution, via the creative commons system and their site seems more interactive and inclusive of the activist consumer.

Alcorn believes that part of the impulse to set up more rigorous fact-checking units comes, to some extent, from the backwash following the 2010 election campaign and the general surrender of the news media, yet again, to the confected, self-serving agendas of the political parties: “We can follow and report on what the politicians want us to report every day or we can try to do our own thing. We’re going to have to do both to some extent. We are going to have to cover what the story of the day is that the politicians want it to be but we can also say, ‘OK so that’s your agenda. What do we think the public are interested in that they want to know more about?’

Once that team decides on a fact-check target, they use the expertise of an Australian university academic. That “finding” is then blind peer-reviewed and a “verdict” written and published using more journalistic techniques again.

It’s not hard to imagine that process taking a few days especially if there is contention between the academics involved (or the journalists?). So, The Conversation has an intrinsic time-lag built into their method. But they are also offering their readers a “rigorous process” to back their claims to factuality. One that inter-meshes academic research and analysis with journalism.

PolitifactOz

Politifact Australia is clearly a franchise or spin-off from the USA fact-checking culture complete with its “pants-on-fire” verdicts and corresponding repeated symbols. They simply continue the pattern from the USA setting.

Their fact-checking method is more akin to regular journalistic practice. They have formed a relationship with Channel Seven to deliver some of their content and, with  the calling of the federal election, with Fairfax also where veteran journalist, Peter Martin, seems to be doing all the heavy lifting. Their tone and content is more “tabloid” and sensationalist.

Clearly, Skelton and his team at the ABC fact-checking unit scanned the approaches of other fact-checkers here and elsewhere as they workshopped their approach. One marked point of difference is the form and detail of the ABC verdicts especially online. John Barron suggests the verdict labels could be “limitless’ in form. This is borne out by their initial tranche of findings with their descriptors including, “over-reach, checks out, incomplete, accurate, not credible, a lawyers’ picnic.” Doubtless there are many more shifting, customised, true-false synonyms to come.

Each finding online is accompanied by quite extensive explanations of the analyses and hyperlinks to sources, documents etc, a partial stepping away from the journalist’s traditional “gate-keeper” role. However, again, the comments sections below those findings reveal that those who don’t believe the verdicts spend little time delving into the provided sources or re-thinking their own, more often than not, partisan tinged perceptions. A common critique is to attack fundamentally the ABC’s process and their individual and collective journalistic integrities.

Which brings us to the other glaring possibility (or is it now a certainty?), harking back to Tim Dunlop’s phrase, “side-dish”, will the various fact-checking verdicts become caught up in the battles between contending (partisan) versions of “the truth”, be breathlessly reportable and the story themselves rather than a way forward to sharper factuality in journalism? Has journalism generally so comprehensively blotted its copybook that climbing out of the tar-pit will be well nigh impossible?

I asked John Barron if he anticipated some sticky moments when the fact-checking unit “clarified” some facts within a story that an ABC colleague had already reported? He agreed that was a real possibility. They would have to “work their way through” these issues as they arose.

He agreed the wide-spread use of the “false equivalence” “he said, she said” form of reporting meant that a whole piece channeling the partisan propaganda of two or more sides could be largely “non-factual”.

Happy days ahead?

The Conversation has already found against the ABC’s Heather Ewart about her report about university drop-out rates.

Will the pain be sharper and more resented from an internal fact-checking unit?

One aspect of all this I expect to become clearer over the next few weeks is how well the various fact-checking approaches can address the varying forms of assertion, obfuscation, exaggeration and spin so pervasive in our political and current affairs discourse. For example, I asked John Barron whether the “feasibility” of permanently settling accepted refugees in Papua New Guinea was “fact-checkable” in the terms he suggested were central to the FCU’s approach, in light of the widely appreciated understanding that PNG is a deeply tribalised, violent society with traditional tensions between local citizens let alone the prospect of harmonising with middle-eastern “interlopers”.

Barron demurred on that one suggesting they could fact-check an assertion about social and economic conditions by a local PNG politician measured against publicly available United Nations research and the like. But fact-checking Tony Abbott’s claim that Nauru “is quite a nice place to live” and Rudd’s that settling refugees permanently in PNG was perfectly possible, were more “opinion” that defied fact-checking despite the obvious point that the Rudd claim sits at the heart of that asylum seeker policy.

Of course, there is a tricksy double play here with the sub-text being the “devil’s island” spectre. Settling in PNG is just too awful to contemplate so “don’t get on that boat”.

Facts ain’t facts and truth ain’t truth, as always, when political power is the prize.

Both Barron and Skelton were at pains to emphasise that the ABC fact-checking unit’s role was distinct from that of Media Watch with journalists and their flaws and misdemeanors the target.

The same scope seems to apply, for now at least, to the verification of visual images, including smart-phone footage from middle eastern trouble spots and from the avalanche of textual copy and visual imagery from “citizen journalists”.

It’s hard not to see that realm becoming more and more critical to fact-checking as the inter-weaving of the legacy and digital media, including exponentially increasing social media, continues apace.

If you would like to delve more deeply and examine some of the experiences and debates around fact-checking in the USA, admittedly a quite different journalistic and political setting, The Columbia Journalism Review has a series of relevant articles here.

Now, I would like to hear your thoughts, preferably after you have examined the online offerings of all three fact-checking units mentioned here.

I aim to post another @nofibs article about fact-checking closer to the election date after we have more evidence of their effectiveness, relevance or otherwise.

One key question we could discuss here is, “How much and in what way will Australia’s fact-checking units shape and “straighten out” the quality and factuality of our political discourse, the hordes of media mavens and spin-meisters notwithstanding.

I shall certainly engage with and respond to your comments to the best of my ability.


 


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Comments

  1. Daniel Boom says:

    What has their ABC been doing all this time if not checking facts? Oh, that’s right – allowing right wingers to throw all sorts of claims and accusations often unchallenged. Worst public broadcaster in the English-speaking world.

    • “Worst public broadcaster in the English speaking world” …

      And what other broadcasters, Daniel, are you comparing it with? Do you include NPR/PBS? Radio Australia, Deutsche Welle and other overseas “soft power” services?

      What are your measures and criteria? Do you have explicit ones?

      If you have a more detailed analytical comparison with other “public broadcasters” plus transparent criteria, I’d value reading that.

  2. Frankly I would give Politifacts a rating of Inconsistent. It uses mostly true or mostly false most of the time. But 1 party seems to be getting more mostly trues for issues that contain whoppers. So I don’t even bother anymore. Saw John Baron today. Good starting point, Hockey’s Net/Gross apples and oranges facts got a run today and came across as more balanced than some of the ABCs coverage has been to date.

    • John

      Keep appraising. Would value any further commentary. One factor I have noticed so far is the partial commonality of the fact-checking targets by topic or politician across ABCFactCheck, The Conversation and Politifact Australia.

      As for the ABC’s “balance to date”, I am not sure exactly what that means. The term “balance” (and the journalistic practice it denotes) is more fraught than ever in journalism. And many (more often than not partisan news consumers) make a judgement about “balance” through their own partisan “lenses”. Of all the news media outlets, the ABC has by far the most rigorous and transparent set of editorial guidelines. It will be interesting to observe whether the fact-checking unit has any effect on that internal ABC news culture and practice overall.

      • For me, when an ABC newsreader or journalist starts to use emotive terms in the reporting then I feel they are moving away from balance. Off the top of my head, the best example is the school building stimulus program. Doesn’t matter what I watch, you can guarantee the words bungled or failed will precede the words “school hall program”. It was anything but bungled or failed and it was anything but a school halls program. The funds were used to build science blocks amongst other things.

        I won’t deny I have a “partial” view of politics. But I also try to evaluate what is being said with some degree of reason.
        The coalition may well not have a $70b hole in their costings but frankly they were THEIR words not anybody elses and if Joe Hockey isn’t prepared to come out on news bulletins and say he lied because he was trying to catch a leaker then frankly he deserves to stew in the $70b juices of his own creation. Saul Eslake has confirmed that they have at least a $30b hole and I would hardly call him pro-labor.

      • John, Your point about the use of certain language is a reasonable one. We have a bit of a mess in much reporting and news copy writing currently. It is partly the sheer speed and quantum of material and the many hungry beasts to be fed 24/7. Spin lines from both sides of politics gets hurled around and become almost a kind of shorthand in story telling. The PR/Marketing/Professional Communication forces in political outfits and large corporations/institutions are very proactive and single minded in creating advantageous public narratives/messages and contexts for those messages. They out-number and out-play many journalists much of the time.

      • Peter,

        Are you saying that the ABC is simply passing off media releases from the political parties as copy to be read on air???

        ABC 24 is a 24/7 operation. How hard is it for an editor to go whoa. Let’s read this and then let’s rewrite it in our own words and remove the bs. No one else in the FTA space is running a channel like this. The viewers are owed this much at least.

        It would explain the appalling grammar and punctuation that allows someone like me to get a good laugh out of statements that are meant to mean one thing coming out sounding like something else.

      • Peter Clarke says:

        John,

        No! I am certainly not saying that at all. But of course we know from research that many outlets including newspapers are often disseminating fairly raw media release copy. The ABC does not. It also has a very rigorous set of Editorial Guidelines. What I was referring to was the process of “osmosis” that seems to occur with partisan polemical catch-phraises etc. becoming part of the accepted reporting language. Often, the “framing” for a story/report.. I too grind my teeth about poor grammar, spelling, omissions, typos etc. But I do notice it happening across the digital news mediascape online, even with major news entities. I know that at the ABC, and now at newspapers such as Fairfax of course, that layer of subbing and quality control is largely gone from the process. Might I suggest you do a little more comparative reading and observing to place the ABC’s actual output in a more authentic context. They are not without blame but remain one of our best suppliers of news and current affairs reporting in this country. From what you have said, you don’t agree. Of course, from not too far along either part of the political spectrum ( left-right if you must or conservative-progressive etc.), three will always be (often very partisan perceptions) that the ABC is not reporting YOUR version of the “truth “.