TheJournal.ie was looking for ways to expand its coverage of politics without concentrating on the politicking when the date of the Irish general election was announced in early February.
“Because Ireland is such a small country, coverage of election campaigns inevitably descends into political wonkery and slavish chronicles of campaign trail events,” the news site’s editor Susan Daly told me via email.
So as her newsroom brainstormed a strategy for covering the elections, they sought ways to “return the election to the hands of our users,” Daly says.
One feature TheJournal.ie rolled out for this purpose is a fact-checking section. Dan MacGuill, a Philadelphia-based freelancer who has worked with TheJournal.ie for almost two years, was assigned to work exclusively on this section for the campaign. This concentration is “unusual for an online newsroom,” Daly says, but one necessary “to create consistency in the process of how the topics for FactCheck are sourced, researched and presented.”
The concentration on the end-user was evident from the get-go: In the inaugural article, MacGuill asked readers “Heard a dodgy claim on the campaign trail? Send it to us to be fact-checked.”
This approach is by no means unprecedented; fact-checkers from South Africa to Italy via the United States invite readers to submit claims. MacGuill’s terms however were very detailed, almost rigid (“GE16 FactCheck is NOT a time machine”); an indication to readers to submit claims responsibly. “We didn’t want this to be hijacked by party activists,” MacGuill told me over the hone.
It hasn’t been. MacGuill has received a “huge amount of emails,” and acknowledges the reader who submitted the claim at the top of every fact check generated that way.
The fact checks themselves are thoroughly researched and detailed, even if they could sometimes gain from better data visualization. The fact-checking overviews of the leaders’ debates are a particularly useful resource.
Readers, who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of this feature, have responded positively. Fact checks “performed significantly better than our politics vertical average,” Adrian Acosta, CEO of The Journal, told me in an email.
From the beginning of 2016 to February 14th, politics verticals received 23,546 page views on average; fact checks received 27,682. Each fact check receives more comments (132 vs. 103 for the politics average) and experiences more overall interactions on Facebook (377 vs. 271). One of the early fact checks was the fourth most shared article on the general election on social media, as tracked by PR company Edelman.
I asked Eugenia Siapera, Associate Director of the Institute for Future Media & Journalism (FuJo) at Dublin City University, and Niamh Kirk, a PhD candidate in the same institute, what they had made of reactions to TheJournal.ie’s fact-checking.
They told me via email that “until politicians took to the airwaves, reactions were for the most part found in the comments sections of individual articles. After the February 15th debate, there was a much higher engagement with fact-checking on social media. As the election campaign progresses, we expect the engagement to peak accordingly.”
What about those at the hard end of the fact-checking, the politicians themselves? In a trend common across the world, campaigns have publicly shared fact checks that suit their purposes while largely ignoring the ones that do not.
They have been somewhat more forthcoming in private. According to Hugh O’Connell, political editor at TheJournal.ie, one senior party adviser described the effort as “seriously impressive.”
In another occasion “Fine Gael [the sitting prime minister’s party] were very unhappy with the [fact check] we did on their jobs creation claims. I was fielding quite a few phone calls once that was published because it’s one of their big pitches to the electorate, which we had somewhat undermined in assessing the numbers.”
TheJournal.ie has not been fact-checking the election alone, even as its efforts have been the most systematic. Prime Time, a current affairs program airing on national broadcaster RTÉ, has also dedicated parts of its most recent shows to some thoughtful fact-checking segments.
The first fact check during this campaign was on the so-called “fiscal space” available to Ireland for additional government spending under EU rules. Katie Hannon, political correspondent at Prime Time, told me via email that the fact check “caused quite a stir and the issue dominated the campaign for days.”
Prime Time had also turned to fact-checking during last year’s marriage equality referendum.
Another major outlet to have run a fact-checking special for the elections is The Irish Times, which ran at least one individual fact check and an overview of Monday night’s leaders’ debate. It had also applied, unsuccessfully, for funding from the Knight Foundation in order to develop an ad hoc site.
Will this modest boom in Irish fact-checking be followed by a bust after the campaign is over?
Siapera told me that “here in FuJo we would definitely like to see more of this accountability journalism, we teach and encourage journalism students to employ fact-checking techniques, while Niamh is herself actively involved in seeking funding to keep her crowdsourced initiative going beyond the elections.”
At TheJournal.ie, Daly says “I would love to continue to dedicate resources to [fact-checking] after this general election because, to me, it’s the kind of journalism we should be doing, regardless of the platform.”