November 14, 2017

The Nation Newsplex, the data team of the Daily Nation, the highest circulation daily newspaper in Kenya, decided to use fact-checking to focus its election coverage on policy, not politics.

Dorothy Otieno, the editor of the Newsplex team, explained the unique opportunity for fact checking in Kenya. “If things like fact checking continue going forward, it will begin to help the voter focus more on issues than personalities,” she explained.

Nation Newsplex has a rare combination: a public interest data-driven mandate and an audience from a diverse background. It also distributes online, in print and through one of the largest television stations in Kenya, NTV.

The fact-checking work aimed to address four big questions.

1. How do we reach new, diverse audiences with information relevant to their lives?

Two conversations are happening almost in parallel: the need for more data-driven accountability reporting and the need to engage more ideologically and socio-economically diverse audiences.

The name that the Newsplex team chose for its election fact-checking feature reveals where its loyalties lie: Before You Vote.

The data unit structured its work around the key issues that the Daily Nation’s editors had decided to concentrate on (which included the economy, corruption, health, education, etc.).

Whether fact checking economic issues such as small business growth, foreign direct investment and unemployment or public service delivery such as health, food security or compensation for internally displaced people, the focus was on the welfare of citizens, not on the politician. For example, they calculated the individual burden of public debt on each citizen to a number that people could relate to.

Professor Sam Kamau, lecturer at the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, explained that's what distinguished the Nation Newsplex strategy from others. “It was focused more on deliberate misinformation by politicians that caused confusion,” he said. “They would dig into the archives and data and pass a verdict … while other journalists were caught up in covering the personalities, drama and intrigue.”

Nation page

2. How do we do a better job of fact checking to keep politicians honest and counteract fake news?

Much of the coverage of Kenyan media by international media focused on the undeniable pervasiveness of fake news. It is low hanging fruit, trendy and not especially useful for citizens. From Bloomberg and Quartz to Huffington Post and Turkey’s TRT World, global media sounded the alarm bell on fake news going viral in social media and fake newspapers printed to look like the Daily Nation and Star.

Often, NTV, the television station owned by the Nation Media Group, would introduce politics programs with fact-checking highlights, such as on youth unemployment, and use the findings as a basis for their interviews. As the campaigns progressed, the Newsplex team noticed that often politicians would cite statistics fact checked the previous week and gradually, Otieno said, “[The politicians] tried to have their claims rooted in reality even if they still exaggerated.”

3. How do we escape the echo chamber and burst the filter bubble?

The Newsplex team has been deliberate in presenting fact-checking evenly and around a policy issue that both sides had brought up. In each addition of the Sunday paper, they dedicated one page to fact-checking: three about the incumbent and three about the main opposition party as well as ministers and gubernatorial candidates. Though they still fielded charges of bias, few questioned the substance of the fact checking.

One key to Nation Newsplex’s strategy was to focus on data that have a direct impact on people’s lives and have a better chance of encouraging people to think beyond preconceptions. They returned again and again to topics such as prices of basic goods or yields of staple foods.

“The biggest information need is clear analysis of the impact of proposed policies on Kenya’s peoples,” explained professor Thomas R. Lansner, who taught for nearly two decades at the Columbia University School of International & Public Affairs and studies Kenyan media. “This was presented to some degree, but usually secondarily to the politico-personality horse race aspect.”

4. How can we have, and measure, impact?

There isn’t a very strong business model for public interest data-driven journalism, and impact is notoriously difficult to measure in journalism, especially during elections. It is difficult to measure whether fact-checking changed the way people voted.

Otieno said often a reader would comment that it was useful to be informed on that issue, even if it didn’t necessarily change the way they planned to vote.

Kamau emphasized that while a noble effort, the coverage did not change the overall tone of the election conversation. “There was no way the media was going to keep up with the misinformation and disinformation being produced,” he explained. “Conspiracy theories were finding receptive minds and receptive hearts. In terms of voters having the right information to make an informed decision, that was not happening.”

Lansner was similarly pessimistic and explained the Nation Newsplex effort did not receive prominent placement or attention. “The electorate is so deeply polarized that any negative coverage of a group’s favored candidate, even if supported by ample evidence, is perceived and often dismissed as inherently biased,” he explained. He also added that data-driven coverage did not even touch on traditional fact-checking election issues such as campaign financing.

The Newsplex team prioritized integration both into other newsroom desks and other Nation Media Group outlets partially to ensure they weren’t, as Kamau described, “drowned by the political noise and drama.”

Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect a change in the affiliation of Thomas R. Lansner.

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