Fact-checking on TV: Australia's ABC Fact Check
(This article is a part of a series of deep dives into fact-checking on TV: how it comes about, what type of organization is required, what the output looks like and what impact it has. Check out the bottom of the page for the first article in this series. )
Fact-checking as a standalone journalistic feature has sprung up in media markets around the world over the past decade. The typical pattern sees several fact-checking operations being launched at varying levels of preparedness shortly before a national election. The model is usually borrowed from abroad: often the United States, but just as likely a strong regional fact-checker. When funding and media attention subside after the political campaign is over, some form of consolidation follows, with fewer organizations sticking to the instrument in the long run.
A similar pattern was at play in Australia in 2013. That year's federal election led to the creation of PolitiFact Australia, The Conversation's fact-checking section and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ABC Fact Check.
Fact-checking has become an important part of political coverage in Australia, says Gordon Farrer, a former journalist of more than 25 years who now teaches journalism at RMIT University in Melbourne and is pursuing a PhD on fact-checking.
"However, awareness of the practice is mainly confined to the relatively small, politically engaged sector of the media and population," he told me.
So how did ABC Fact Check launch, how does it operate and where does it stand nearly three years from when it first started? Equally important: what can its work teach other aspiring TV fact-checkers?
The organizational context
ABC Fact Check launched in August 2013 after three months of planning and recruitment. The ABC's board approved the project following the recommendations of an internal working group that had reviewed the work of fact-checkers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
ABC Fact Check's organization is unusual in two ways. First, it is a distinctly cross-media effort. Most fact-checkers operate predominantly on one medium, even if they regularly produce content for others. ABC Fact Check publishes material with a similar frequency on television, Web and radio.
Secondly, Fact Check is part of an independent, publicly-owned statutory authority. This is quite rare: the only other example around the world, to my knowledge, is the U.K.'s Channel 4. In other countries, publicly-owned television may run fact-checking clips but they are either less institutionalized or contracted out to external fact-checkers.
This seems to inform ABC Fact Check's tone, which is more didactic than adversarial. Russell Skelton, Editor of ABC Fact Check, explains it like this: "We are not in the business of calling politicians and elected officials liars but in lifting the quality of the national public policy debate."
It also meant a relatively big budget at launch for a fact-checking operation: 1.5 million Australian dollars for its first year of operations. This has caused some backlash. In a blistering critique, Gay Alcorn, a former editor of The Conversation, argued ABC Fact Check was crowding out private efforts such as PolitiFact Australia. This seems ungenerous: fact-checking is an expensive form of public service journalism that is still figuring out ways to pay for itself and therefore seems a good fit for a public broadcaster. Skelton defended ABC Fact Check in an opinion piece for Australian newspaper The Age, saying Alcorn's critique has more to do with the decline of commercial media than it does increased competition among fact-checkers.
Public ownership also means greater political scrutiny over management decisions. ABC's managing director was grilled by a Liberal senator for appointing Skelton to head Fact Check. Moreover, the unit's seed money came from the Gillard government, and ABC was less of a priority for the subsequent administrations. This had organizational consequences: A reduced budget for the ABC led to Fact Check shedding half of its staff (from 14 to seven) and reducing its output on TV to one clip a week.
ABC Fact Check on TV
Fact Check presents its work in several different ways on TV. Its most distinctive format is a short clip like this one. While Fact Check presenter John Barron is the only person on camera, it is the video and graphics supporting his assertions that take center stage. He takes a distinct claim and dissects it within 90 seconds before giving it one of ABC Fact Check's many ratings.
These ratings are quite unique for a fact-checking operation in that they are a broad palette of qualitative tags within a more classic "meter". Ratings are grouped as "In The Red", "In The Green" and "In Between" but a vast array of possible designations are possible. To give an example, ratings in the red include "Incorrect", "Doesn't Check out", "Exaggerated", "Ill-informed", "Untenable", "Misleading", "Baseless' and "Wrong", none of which is necessarily worse than one another.
"I decided that verdict words should fit the finding rather than be shoehorned into a contrived category," Skelton said. Besides (and even though this is from an email, I imagine it delivered in a deadpan voice) "we have found from experience that readers of ABC Fact Check are never reluctant to make their own judgement regardless of what we decide."
Those labels are more polite than those used by other fact checkers, Farrer said, "and I suspect that this subtlety of gradation in the tone of the rulings made by ABC Fact Check makes it a little easier for politicians to shrug off adverse assessments of their truthfulness.” On the other hand, "the nuanced ratings also makes it harder [...] to argue that the ABC is being political as it might be if it were to use emotive, loaded language.”
In another format, Barron has a slightly longer, more traditional fact-finding interview with a panel of experts, as he did to determine whether Australia's contribution to the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq should be considered a "war." While the different terms used by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott were presented at the introduction of the segment, there was no rating at the end. But the opinions of the interviewed experts were part of the complete fact check published online.
Another distinctive narrative tool ABC Fact Check uses is the "zombie of the week", a false claim that is persistently bandied about and — much like other zombies — refuses to die. This concentration on false claims that keep getting repeated is wise, as politicians sometimes seem to bank on repetition to turn a false claim into one that sounds credible because it is heard so often. Starting last year, ABC Fact Check has also awarded the "golden zombie" for the most persistent debunked claim of the year.
Get fact: The year in fact checking 20152015 was a busy year for ABC Fact Check, sorting fact from fiction, and tracking the Government's promises via our promise tracker.Take a look back at some of our most popular claims of the year, and of course, find out who took out this year's Golden Zombie, the prize for the undead talking point of the year.Happy New Year from the Fact Check team, we'll see you in 2016!
Posted by ABC Fact Check on Wednesday, 30 December 2015
Posted by ABC Fact Check on Wednesday, 30 December 2015
As befits a larger organization — but also one that also has an educational mission — the process to get these fact checks on air requires several people to sign off on them.
After a claim is agreed upon by the whole team as relevant to the public debate and contentious, a researcher investigates it and makes a basic assessment as to whether it can be fact checked. Following Skelton's review and approval, a more detailed research paper is prepared that gets reviewed by Skelton again before being written up. The write-up is then sent to chief fact-checker Lis Sexton for review. Sexton reviews the sources and correspondence and will search for anything that may have been overlooked.
The completed fact check is reviewed by the online editor and when necessary by the ABC Fact Check's independent expert panels on law, climate change and economics. Skelton says their role is fundamental ("We follow their advice to the letter.")
Working across media
The close tie between TV and Web output is integral to ABC Fact Check's work process: Fact checks are produced for the website before they are transformed into scripts. Barron always signs off his fact-checking segments by inviting viewers to go to the ABC Fact Check website for more details, which tends to drive traffic there.
Converting a fact check into good TV is not simple. The key to his transformation from a long article with extensive hyperlinks to a short and snappy TV script is stripping everything down to "the factual backbone," Skelton said. Also, "it helps to have experts involved as your can refer to them in a generic sense without quoting them word for word. "
ABC Fact Check has also been experimenting successfully with graphics on social media. These condense all the information you need to know — the claim, the data, the rating — in one easily retweetable post like the one below.
ABC Fact Check’s graphics developer and TV producer Devi Mallal offers three tips for successful fact-checking graphics. First: they need to be visually arresting and dynamic ("as well as being accurate and informative, they need to look good!"). They should use a visual metaphor that directly relates to the subject but without stumbling into clichés. Finally, and in this I think they are greatly successful, they need to "distill a large amount of information in an easily digestible form."
The unit also maintains and updates perhaps the best visualization of a promise tracker anywhere in the world (though it is unfortunately not embeddable yet, so you should play with it on their site). This is very much a Web-first product, indicative of a strategy of using the site to provide greater context to the fact-checking that airs on TV.
Much like fact-checkers elsewhere, Skelton says ABC Fact Check does struggle with covering breaking news because of the time required to go through all the research and editing. This is addressed in part by anticipating major events such as the climate change conference in Paris or tackling issues that are likely to run for several news cycles.
Among others plans for 2016, Skelton plans to expand the use of fact files. Initially a tool for researchers to distill and organize their findings, they have become a useful additional component of the unit's offerings to the public. He also is aiming to improve the clarity of fact checks.
What impact is this having?
"Impact is hard to measure," Skelton said. ABC Fact Check does have a significant following both quantitatively and qualitatively. Individual fact checks can receive hundreds of thousands of visits views and the election promise tracker has clocked well over 4 million views. Skelton says policy groups and think tanks follow their findings closely too.
According to Dr Andrea Carson, lecturer in Media and Politics at the University of Melbourne, "a negative rating from this journalistic tool of an organization that repeatedly is voted the most respected media institution in Australia has consequences in terms of deterring political actors. That said, "how much the public pays attention to Fact Check’s conclusions [...] is difficult to measure. But, I would argue these tools work most efficiently because they target a niche audience, mainly those in the political class, rather than the general public."
ABC's fact checks have a very measurable impact on public policy debate in at least one way. From my research on the Australian Parliament's Hansard (transcripts), I found that ABC Fact Check was referred to in the House or Senate 52 times by 35 politicians from both government and opposition. The breakdown is shown below — and you can read the individual statements in this Google sheet. Much as in the U.S. Congress, fact checks were mostly used by politicians to ridicule their opponents for peddling false claims.
ABC Fact Check has not obtained any retractions from politicians it fact checks to date, but its findings do seem to occasionally have a significant effect on the country's policy debate.
Skelton argues that the unit's most successful fact check was on whether last year's free trade agreement between Australia and China mandates that Chinese companies that invest in the country to attempt hiring Australian workers before bringing in workers from overseas. The fact check found that it does not. Though the minister for trade took issue with the findings, the government never formally challenged the fact check, as it could have done through ABC's complaints procedure. Skelton claims that the government "subsequently changed its position in acknowledgment of our finding that there was no requirement for mandatory labor market testing in the FTA."
When I asked Farrer about the ABC's most successful fact check ever, he cited one relating to a claim made during the federal election campaign of 2013 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd argued there was a $70 billion "black hole" in the opposition coalition's campaign promises. This was deemed "Not Credible" by ABC Fact Check. Here's Farrer on how that played out:
Despite [the fact check] – and despite the fact that the Opposition regularly cited the Fact Check ruling and journalists frequently challenged the statement – Labor politicians continued to make the claim throughout the campaign. The focus on this particular statement – in the heightened atmosphere of the election campaign when more citizens than usual were paying attention to politics – damaged the government immensely. It looked desperate and dishonest by continuing to insist the statement was correct despite the negative rating from a trusted, independent judge.
As ABC Fact Check's third year of work comes to a close, a new federal election is coming up in Australia.