October 21, 2015

As duelling claims are made on the refugee crisis by politicians in different member states of the European Union, fact-checkers from five countries joined forces last week for a televised “relay-[fact]check”.

The fact-checkers hailed from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK and included three national TV channels as well as a leading daily newspaper and two independent online fact-checking sites.

#RefugeeCheck, born from the stimulus of Sonja Schuenemann at the German public television ZDF, sought to shed light on how different EU countries are portraying one another in the handling of the refugee crisis. As Elmar Theveßen, Deputy Editor in Chief and Head of News at ZDF noted “Europe is still struggling to find a joint solution to the migrant crisis. Only one thing is for sure: The ongoing finger pointing leads us nowhere. This makes fact-checking the blame game so important.”

Over the course of last week, fact-checkers covered five statements in five languages. These were fact-checked in three-minute clips and broadcast every evening during Heute plus, ZDF’s newscast conceived for a young audience. The relay started on Monday with a claim made by an Italian politician about Germany. Far-right leader Matteo Salvini claimed, “Merkel is anything but dumb. She says: I choose the Syrians because they are persecuted Christians, doctors, graduates. Italy can pick up the others”. This erroneous claim was fact-checked by Heute plus (see video below in German):

The baton passed the next day to FullFact, which fact-checked a claim by a politician from the German Social-Democratic Party who said the UK “receives no refugees”, an ungenerous exaggeration. On Wednesday it was the turn of Libération’s Désintox, and a claim by Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, on the demographic composition of migrants arriving to Calais. Thursday the show moved to El Objetivo, on Spain’s La Sexta channel, which looked at a claim comparing the controversial barriers raised in Hungary to the ones in Spain’s North African territories.

Finally the relay returned to Italy on Friday as Pagella Politica* was asked to fact-check a claim by a Spanish MP who accused centre-left governments in his country of hosting only 10% of the refugees that “Berlusconi’s Italy” was hosting.

The initiative provided for a truly European story on the refugee crisis. As Joseph O’Leary, Senior Researcher at Full Fact points out “you can’t sum up the refugee situation from one country’s perspective alone.” This reasoning has brought fact-checkers together in the past too, as in the case of last year’s G20 in Brisbane.

The project was not without hiccups, with outlets used to the different style of online and TV fact-checking having to find common grounds. Each video also maintained the distinctive format of the producing fact-checker, which is fascinating for media-watchers but perhaps confusing for viewers.

On balance, however, the mixing of approaches yielded positive results. With no extra production cost, the collaborating fact-checkers presented a fascinating overview of what Europeans are saying about one another on refugees. The relay check also gave participating fact-checkers the chance to learn from colleagues. Cedric Mathiot, Editorial coordinator of Désintox told me this was “an exciting experience because it allows to confront professionals with similar approaches”

Mathiot also noted this was “a first step before collaborations that we can imagine which are more ambitious [and even] pool resources”. A positive note shared by Ana Pastor, host and director of El Objetivo “Starting this Pan-European factchecking initiative with a sensible issue such as the refugees’ crisis is very encouraging”. The International Fact-Checking Network launched today should be able to support more efforts of this kind. Watch this space.

* Full disclosure: I was Managing Editor of Pagella Politica before joining Poynter and I remain on the board of that editorial project. I don’t intend for this fact to affect my coverage in any way, but I will specify it for transparency purposes any time I cover the Italian fact-checkers on this site.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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