Lessons from London: fact-checkers have passion, but need more checks

Poynter’s inaugural Global Fact-Checking Summit attracted a diverse group of journalists to a London classroom this week.

Two Italians explained their creative ideas for earning money from their work. An energetic editor from Argentina talked about how she uses crowdsourcing to help her reporters. And two young journalists from Ukraine showed how they’ve used digital tools to find manipulated photographs in the Russian media.

Attendees at the Poynter’s Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. (Photo by Shannon Beckham)

The journalists shared something big in common: a passion for fact-checking.

As international conferences go, the Global Fact-Checking Summit was a small one — about 40 fact-checkers, a half-dozen academics who study this growing new form of journalism, plus a handful of representatives from the foundations that paid for the conference. But what it lacked it size, it made up in spirit.

They came from across the globe — India, South Africa, Serbia, Poland, Italy, France, the United States and Chile. Russell Skelton, the head of the ABC Fact Check in Australia, endured a 22-hour flight from Sydney and won the conference prize for the longest trip — a kitschy Barack Obama snow globe.

The two-day conference at the London School of Economics showed fact-checkers are a unique breed. They’re smart and can do sophisticated reporting. They’ve disrupted the status quo by challenging the accuracy of their political leaders. And they’ve developed thick skin to withstand frequent criticism. They are eagle-eyed and even caught a mistake in their Poynter certificates, which said the conference was held in July.

The big news from the meeting was the unanimous decision to form an international association that will hold future conferences, promote fact-checking and help the journalists exchange best practices.

As the organizer of the conference, my big takeaway was the realization that in some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, impartial fact-checking can’t be done by newspapers and television networks because they are often controlled by the government or political parties. In those countries, it is being done by “media NGOs” — independent groups that play the role of the non-partisan media.

The meeting allowed the fact-checkers to exchange ideas and tips. Italians Alberto Puoti and Alexios Mantzarlis showed a glitzy TV fact-checking segment that reminded many of us of Dancing with the Stars. Paata Gaprindashvili of the GRASS FactCheck in Georgia played a video that used a wonderfully simple animation to explain a complicated subject.

But for all the great highlight-reel moments, there were plenty of reminders about some big challenges facing the London attendees:

  • Although fact-checking is flourishing in the United States and Europe, there are only a few sites in Africa and South America.
  • In many countries, fact-checking can be difficult because of the lack of reliable government data.
  • No one has found a sustainable business model for fact-checking.

That looms as the biggest challenge. Fact-checking sites don’t typically draw enough traffic to be commercially successful, so they have to get substantial support from large news organizations and foundations.

One of the most popular panels at the London conference was about finding new revenue sources. It began with gloomy comments from editors saying they were facing big funding cuts in the near future. But the conversation turned hopeful as the panelists offered some creative ideas to raise money.

Chequeado, a site in Argentina, hosts a big fund-raiser called “The Night of Chequeado.” FactCheck.org in the United States raises about $80,000 a year from individual donations. Pagella Politica, a site in Italy, is exploring offering a variety of services that could bring in revenue, including selling its data and writing background briefs for television hosts about the fact-check records of politicians.

Mantzarlis, co-creator of Pagella Politica, said fact-checking takes a lot of time and effort, which means “there is definitely value in it.” So why not try to recoup some of that value?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the fact-checkers is changing their mindset, something the new association is likely to address. They are not just journalists any more, they are managers and entrepreneurs who must find a way to keep their ventures sustainable.

Laura Zommer, the executive director of Chequeado, said fundraising required a big change in her approach.

“The most important thing,” she said, “is not to be shy.”

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is the creator of PolitiFact.

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