Lack of access to information is driving Latin America’s fact-checking boom
These fact-checking efforts were born in different economic, social and cultural contexts. They all share a common denominator, however: They operate in countries where, to varying degrees, there is a lack of access to public and reliable data.
In Latin America, official statistics are highly questionable, said Santiago Marino, a lecturer and researcher in politics of communication at the National University of Buenos Aires and the National University of Quilmes. In many countries, there are no laws regulating access to public information nor a policy of open data.
This has both stimulated the birth of fact-checking initiatives and hampered their efforts, Marino said.
"Fact-checking has often taken root in organizations that were already conducting investigative journalism and were used to tell stories based on data in a new way," said Cecilia Derpich, coordinator of the research unit at El Mercurio in Chile.
Examples of outlets where this is true include Ojo Público in Peru and Consejo de Redacción in Colombia: both outlets were reporting partners on the Panama Papers and have fact-checking initiatives (respectively Ojo Bionico and Colombiacheck).
Marino notes a different connection between investigative journalism and the growth of fact-checking, namely that the demise of the former spurred demand for the latter: "In recent years, investigative journalism in the big traditional media in Latin America has suffered setbacks. Many of these outlets have discontinued their research teams because they involve a large investment."
Cristina Tardáguila, director of Brazilian website Lupa, thinks the creation of fact-checking initiatives has been spurred by the politics of local media: "Our political contexts are extremely polarized between official and opposition media. In this situation, citizens seek reliable information and data."
Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán, editor of Plaza Pública in Guatemala, agrees. "Latin American countries are generally characterized by a concentration of ownership of the media. There are few voices in the public debate and this has driven us to be innovative."
Polarization has led to a growing lack of trust, said Eugenia Mitchelstein, director of the bachelor program in communications at the Universidad de San Andrés. There is growing perception of mistrust toward the traditional figures of power, whether in politics, business, or media, she said.
This has left a void that fact-checkers have stepped in to try and fill.
Ultimately the challenge that these initiatives pose is to transfer public trust — once anchored in traditional media outlets — directly to the hands of the community itself as it uses tools promoted by fact-checkers but available to all.