January 22, 2016

In mid-January 2016, the office of the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa issued a public correction for a minor error that had been included in a speech delivered by the president, Jacob Zuma, at a business gala dinner the previous month.

The correction was about the size of the continent of Africa. In his speech Mr Zuma had claimed Africa was the “biggest continent in the world”; in his correction he admitted that, by population, Africa would indeed only be considered the second-biggest after Asia. “The President regrets the error,” the statement read (neglecting, sadly, to take the opportunity to correct the additional overstated claim that all the continents put together would “fit into Africa”).

The correction itself was an unusual enough act to be noticed; the question about Africa’s size less so. One of the very first reports researched by Africa Check was on the question of exactly how many countries there are in Africa. (The answer is not straightforward). Still, it seemed significant that, as 2016 began, one of Africa’s most powerful leaders appeared to be aware of the importance of getting their facts straight in public.

In the preceding months the issue of fact-checking and corrections had also been raised very prominently by newspaper editors in South Africa and in Kenya. Except that in these cases their calls had been for improved fact-checking processes in the media. Both Ferial Haffajee, the editor-in-chief of South Africa’s City Press, and Peter Mwaura, public editor of Kenya’s Daily Nation, singled out Africa Check as the benchmark for such exercises. Ms Haffajee called Africa Check the continent’s “accuracy watchdog” and, following a series of errors in her own newspaper, announced that, among other measures, she would be asking Africa Check to train her reporters on improved fact-checking protocols.

Facts don’t have borders

Fact-checking in Africa is no different from fact-checking in any other part of the world. There is no empirical evidence that Africa (a continent, not a country remember) is any more, or less, honest than any other region of the world. One only needs to look at the proliferation of fact-checkers around the world to see that bad data has no respect for international borders. Even if we have to measure overtly “dishonest” factors like corruption in Africa, typically these metrics assess only perceptions of graft – and, as every fact-checker ought to know, you can’t fact-check an opinion.

There exist rich sets of data on most, if not all, African countries. Finding the information, however, is not always easy, whether reporting on Africa or checking reports on Africa. In response to this, Africa Check is developing a new Info Finder service to help point its readers to sources of useful data in key countries around the continent.

At the same time, convincing people that this information a) is available and b) that it is adequate to be used is also hard. Certainly, there is a residual mistrust of African-led data that extends not only across African media but is strongly evident in the foreign media’s reporting on the continent and individual African countries. In the past nine months Africa Check has discovered significant errors in reporting on South Africa that appeared in the UK’s Telegraph, the New York Times, and, most recently, international broadcaster Sky News. While the latter report has been quietly removed from the broadcaster’s website, as yet none of the respective media outlets have admitted their errors or published corrections.

Fact-checking is not just about politics

The approach of the US presidential elections has pushed political fact-checking into a specific prominence, and raised parallel questions about the relevance of fact-checking in general. Recent articles on Poynter have asked, deliberately, why many fact-checking organisations fail – and, whether anyone cares about fact-checking anyway?

Africa Check’s own founding story shows this need not all be about politics. More than a decade ago the people of northern Nigeria experienced an upsurge in polio (that then spread to other countries across the Sahel and further afield), following false claims that vaccination campaigns were part of a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. These claims were published (as “news”), unchecked, by the local media. Although corrections were subsequently printed, they came too late; it would take more than a decade for the country to recover to previous polio levels. Nigeria is still not polio-free.

The false claims about the polio vaccine were not all made by politicians, but by religious leaders and others in the media. So, when Africa Check was founded in 2012 (by journalist Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a former AFP Lagos bureau chief who had been in Nigeria at the time), it was agreed to focus on all of these sectors – politics, public and media. This also informed Africa Check’s decision to provide its reports free of charge to other news organisations, establishing Africa Check not only as Africa’s first fact-checking concern but, in a sense, as a functional fact-checking wire service.

For Africa Check there is a dual benefit in this arrangement. First, it allows our content to be widely distributed. Second, by providing our content to others, we enable others to understand and perhaps even replicate similar fact-checks.

Built-in obsolescence?

To date, almost all Africa Check’s funding has come from half a dozen different donor institutions. While funding has grown sharply, we are constantly looking for ways to become less dependent on our donors.

In 2015 Africa Check established a commercial training, research and information division, TRi Facts. This unit operates separately from Africa Check’s editorial team, providing training and research services to clients in the media, education and business sectors.

Before TRi Facts had even officially launched, it had been booked to train nearly 100 cadet journalists and community newspaper editors at one of South Africa’s largest newspaper groups, Caxton & CTP Publishers. Over the next nine months TRi Facts conducted similar training at three other major South African national news organisations: EWN, Times Media, and Africa’s largest media company, Media24. TRi Facts is currently negotiating fact-check training for both professional and citizen journalists not just in South Africa but in Kenya and Nigeria, and hopes to soon expand its programme to include youth reporters.

The growing demand not just for fact-checking but for fact-check training has multiple benefits for Africa Check: not only will it allow the organisation to become (at least partially) self-funded, it could also – perhaps more importantly – have the effect of reducing the need for separate fact-checking organisations over time. As Poynter’s Alexios Mantzarlis says, “fact-checking emerged as a standalone industry because other journalists weren’t fulfilling that role any more and will die (happy) when journalists return to it across the board.”

This is perhaps counter-intuitive, but the mandate of fact-checking operations should never focus exclusively on correcting misleading claims. The ultimate goal should rather be kick-starting their readers’ sceptical reflexes, and enabling them, and those in the media, to question and check claims for themselves. Fact-checkers and fact-checking organisations are also not infallible, nor are they omnipotent: they cannot be on every computer, every mobile phone, every street corner or community hall. If fact-checking is niche, then it will never be relevant or effective.

This approach – a planned (if still distant) redundancy – is important to and has even been welcomed by our funders, and rightly so. It also firmly places fact-checking as a form of sustainable social enterprise (the old “teaching a person to fish” cliché) rather than a charity service, or gimmick employed by commercial media.

At its core, fact-checking should enable a shift in thinking and skills. Not about this or that claim, but in teaching people to ask better questions and to find and use the best sources of information themselves.

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Nechama Brodie is a South African journalist and author. She is the head of training, research and information at Africa Check.
Nechama Brodie

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