Misinformation researcher awarded for article on the roots of fact-checking 

September 16, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Lucas Graves, a misinformation researcher based at the University of Washington—Madison, has won the 2019 Bob Franklin Journal Article Award for his 2018 article “Boundaries Not Drawn: Mapping the institutional roots of the global fact-checking movement.”

The study is the first of its kind, offering a systematic analysis of international fact-checking organizations and their institutional ties. Graves describes the practice of fact-checking as a “genuinely transnational professional movement,” and frames it as an important example of how journalism is becoming globalized.

The article draws on Graves’ fieldwork from two international fact-checking summits, one in 2014 and one in 2015, as well as his site visits to multiple fact-checking organizations’ headquarters, including Africa Check in Johannesburg, Full Fact in London, and Desintox and Les Décodeurs in Paris. Graves also logged in more than 200 hours of participant observation with the three top fact-checking sites in the United States, FactCheck.org, Politifact and the Washington Post Fact-Checker.

“The most important thing to (note) is that the gears of academia really do turn slowly,” Graves told the IFCN. “This article first came out in 2016, and is based on research from 2015 and 2015, which is a lifetime ago in the fact-checking world.”

Nonetheless, the award judges explain in their announcement that Graves’s paper “offers a truly comprehensive and historically grounded account about a phenomenon — the checking of facts, the verifying of information, and the institutionalization around such practices — that is of preeminent importance to journalism worldwide.”

The Bob Franklin Journal Award is given annually to an article from one of three journals, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice or Digital Journalism, that best explores the connection between “culture, society and journalism practices.”

“Boundaries Not Drawn” will be free to access (in English) until Dec. 31. Below is a summary of the paper’s key points.

Fact-checking: Born in the USA?

Graves notes that it is not entirely certain whether “political fact-checking meaningfully ‘began’ in the United States. Just as one can find precursors in American journalism, other historical resonances may exist in different media environments.”

Nonetheless, the fact-checking community understands itself to be a global phenomenon with relatively recent origins in the United States.

FactCheck.org, the first website fully dedicated to fact-checking, was launched in 2002, with PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact-Checker following suit in 2007. In 2010, Graves notes, there was a dramatic surge in the number of fact-checking outlets around the world, “with 20 new sites launching that year in seven countries.”

This rapid globalization of the practice resulted in a two-way influence, Graves argues. Not only did U.S. fact-checkers help define and sharpen the movement as it grew globally, but the diversity of the international community also played with the limits of traditional Anglo-American professional journalism.

“The growth of fact-checking around the world bears the imprint of the U.S. movement,” he writes, “but this influence flows both ways.”

Having themselves a field day

One key example of this is the way fact-checkers have heartily welcomed non-journalists from other fields into the movement’s international community, embracing a “substantial diversity of both actors and methods.”

“Whereas professional fact-checkers aggressively police the borders of their practice in the United States, they have welcomed non-journalists into the fold internationally.”

Graves uses a graphing technique called a ternary plot to map out 18 fact-checking organizations’ ties to three contrasting fields: journalism, academia, and politics or civil society. He shows that while fact-checking may be “at its core, journalistic,” it’s a movement that draws its strength from a wide array of professionals working to accomplish similar goals.

These include academics and researchers who investigate and write fact-checks, non-governmental organizations that often provide funding, universities and academic institutions that often provide structural support, and civic activists seeking to hold the media and political figures accountable to the public.

If he were to rewrite the paper now, Graves told the IFCN, he’d sort these groups differently in relation to each other, now that the landscape has changed and his familiarity with fact-checking organizations has grown.

“(Nonetheless), I do think there’s something useful in understanding the global fact-checking field as the overlap, or intersection, of different institutional influences that are visible to varying degrees in specific organizations,” he added.

Currently, Graves is working on research about “what shape fact-checking will take as it matures into a distinct professional field in its own right, something I think is definitely happening and is fascinating to see.”

Fact-checkers don’t all agree, and this is cause for celebration 

“Boundaries Not Drawn” highlights the vast differences between how fact-checkers operate, from funding structures and institutional affiliations, to political ideology, to how fact-checks get written and presented.

“Even this basic methodological difference has not hindered the consolidation of fact-checking as a global movement,” Graves notes. “Rather, discussions of the issue participants resolve potential tension by celebrating their diversity.”

Graves notes how fact-checkers across the globe operate within their respective political environments, so standards for non-partisanship and methodological approaches tend to vary greatly.

One example he gives of this is the Ukranian fact-checking site StopFake, which was launched specifically to “counter Russian propaganda.” The site’s approach to debunking false news spread by pro-Putin news outlets was critiqued by some as being too plainly partisan.

But, as Graves explains, democratic media systems that operate with a free press cannot be categorized the same way as media systems that exist in non-democratic settings.

“In an important sense the diversity of the fact-checking landscape can be read as a triumph of ‘journalistic logic’,” he writes.

“It’s… malleable enough to mean different things to different communities, but robust enough to maintain an identity across these boundaries.”