October 21, 2015

Verification should be an intrinsic value of journalism. Yet the move towards ever-shorter news cycles and the increasing mass of user-generated content (UGC) means verification is being re-examined in depth and adapted to the 21st century.

New resources are popping up all the time, from The Verification Handbook to the recent launch of First Draft News, a coalition of verification experts. The BBC’s UGC Hub is but one example of newsrooms dedicating staff to prevent hoaxes from becoming a story. Will this renewed focus on verification reduce the flow of falsehoods at the source and eliminate the need for independent fact-checking sites?

Verification and fact -checking are two separate but closely tied journalistic practices. For the purposes of this article, verification is a process that evaluates the veracity of a story before it becomes ‘the news’; fact-checking is a process that occurs post publication and compares an explicit claim made publicly against trusted sources of facts. According to Alastair Reid, Managing Editor of First Draft News, the trifecta of verification is “source, date, location”. In this sense, verification concentrates on the reliability of the origin of a claim, while fact-checking addresses the claim’s logic, coherence and context.

Verification and fact-checking aren’t conflictual, says Nikos Sarris of ATC, which is the technical leader of the Reveal Project, an EU-funded collaboration including Deutsche Welle. On the contrary, the former will provide new tools for the latter. ATC’s TruthNest app, which Reveal is developing further, rates the reliability of a tweet on the basis of the “3 Cs”: contributor, content and context. Each ‘C’ has five metrics, which tally up the reliability of a tweet. The resulting analysis looks something like this:

truthnest rev

Some verification tools, particularly in photo checking, are already in regular use by fact-checkers worldwide. Tineye, Google Reverse Image search and other basic tools have helped fact-checkers in Italy, Nepal, South Africa, the Ukraine and elsewhere correct stories that were misleading or flat-out false.

Fergus Bell, founder of Dig Deeper Media (a member of the First Draft Coalition), said the most important part of verification is not a single tool but understanding the scrutinized technology and applying a method. To this end First Draft News’ guide for verifying photos and videos, which recognizes that verification is not a simple black and white process but a grayscale, which reaches an almost probabilistic conclusion, is a good place to begin.

Verification is also applicable to datasets. Fact-checkers routinely double-check data from dubious sources, but may not always perform due diligence on ones traditionally deemed more reliable (see Segnini for a practical example).

If there is one field in which “verification 2.0” seems to have most lessons to offer traditional fact-checkers, it is in finding a business model. Storyful, a leader in the field, was acquired by Newscorp for approximately $25 million in December 2013. The majority of fact-checkers surveyed ahead of a conference in London rely predominantly on grants. While some are very successful doing so, most would like to find alternative sources of revenue too.

As Bell points out, the ‘commodity’ in verification is mostly an expertise rather than a single tool, which is also true of fact-checking. So why haven’t we seen any large-scale buyouts of fact-checking sites?

In part, fact-checkers usually do not have a tech-based approach that can scale up their work to the level that verification firms can (yet). Secondly, for either ethical or practical reasons they haven’t always thought of ways their products can drive up traffic in a significant manner for aspiring clients.

So, will the verification surge kill fact-checking? No – the two are complementary, and maliciously or not people will continue distorting facts that are verifiably wrong. However, fact-checkers should follow closely what is happening in the field of verification.

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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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