Factcheck journalism: a key journalistic value emerges as a genre

Factcheck journalism is emerging as a genre and factchecking is becoming a key journalistic value alongside more traditional, historic journalistic values such as impartiality and objectivity. Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen explains the basics of factchecking and its role in combatting misinformation.

Factchecking is a journalistic verification process that is done before a story hits the pages or the air. It often relies on technical skills as well to check images and video content that are often part of mis- and disinformation. However, factcheck journalism is emerging as a genre in its own right and factchecking is also becoming a key journalistic value alongside more traditional, historic journalistic values such as impartiality and objectivity.

Factchecking has, of course, always been a part of journalism but not necessarily given the same central position rhetorically as it is today. Part of this development is the shift within the journalistic field. As more and more content creators from related fields (e.g., influencers, bloggers, opinion makers on social media) are entering the field, journalists are trying to claim professionalism and distinguish themselves from these by claiming values unique to the journalistic profession – factchecking being one of them. This is a trend that has been growing for the past five-to-seven years – and it can be observed in almost all countries. The value of factchecking becomes a distinguishing mark of professionalism among journalists – with the factcheck journalism genre ensuring a proper place among other well-renowned journalistic genres and factchecking emerging as a profession related to journalism.

What is factchecking?

Factchecking is the process of checking information that has been distributed either through traditional media or social media. Before the emergence of social media, the news cycle was shorter and traditional media was manned by gatekeepers doing their utmost to ensure that information was vetted before reaching the editorial pages or airwaves. That does not mean that there were no blunders, propaganda or even disinformation in the past, but there were fewer channels and there were no social media algorithms to rely on for their easy – and fast – spreading.

With everyone becoming a publisher on social media – not least politicians, governments and other powerholders – and de facto bypassing the media’s standard vetting procedures and gatekeepers, a need for factchecking has emerged. This means professional factcheckers who are solely focusing on checking information that is being distributed to audiences and potentially having a significant effect on the shaping of public opinions.

Who gets factchecked?

It could be everyone who shares content but it is mostly those whose voices weigh heavily in the political and public debate, meaning opinion makers, politicians, authorities, governments, etc. But it may also be statements, stories, images and video content that are being shared across social media without a known source or content creator. For instance, images from conflicts that need to be checked to ensure that they are, in fact, from the conflict area they claim to be and not repurposed material used in a propaganda or disinformation effort.

Who are the factcheckers?

Factchecking is an emerging profession that spans broadly: It consists of journalists and researchers who apply their inherent factchecking skills but also activists or civil society actors who see it as a necessity in their local communities and build up the needed competencies within factchecking to fill a void and ensure that the public has access to a mechanism checking information. As the field is professionalising, new organisations are also emerging to support factcheckers and provide them with training and possibilities of collaborating across borders. The most noted organisation is the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), anchored with Poynter in the US.

What are the warning signs that something going around social media should be factchecked?

It depends on the content. But it is often content without proper attribution; content where it is difficult to see who created it – or where there is something not right with the original source . But it can also be content that is professionally produced with the purpose of precisely fooling even those with sharp eyes. As such, it is always recommended to check the story and the facts presented therein before sharing it further – starting with the source of origin. This can be everything from a standard Google search, checking with trusted media sources or scrutinising the people and statements included in the piece.

What can we reasonably hope to accomplish by holding public figures accountable for false statements?

Precisely that. Holding them accountable. Ensuring that they do not try to distort reality and bend facts. For a society to function properly, people need to be informed and have access to reliable information. Otherwise, they are potentially misguided in their political choices.

Is fact-checking inherently politically neutral?

Ideally factchecking is objective. It is about checking the facts – going behind statements, figures, images and giving the correct version. But information can be biased based on the way it is presented. Let’s say there is a tendency in a society to only factcheck one political party because they are known to say a lot of nonsense. Is this biased? How about the other parties? Are they getting off the hook too easily? All types of content production and distribution are about choices – and choices are made by humans that are not without their own inherent biases, however objective they strive to be.

What lessons have we learned about misinformation as it relates to Covid-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine?

One of the biggest (that we also knew before these events) is that we can never fully catch up. Factchecking is important but we are reactive. We also need to be proactive by counter-factchecking even before misinformation is distributed – or at least try to ensure that it is less likely to go viral. Ensuring that mis- and disinformation do not benefit from the algorithms on social media but that public interest information does.