This Saturday, I will focus attention on fact-checking journalism, a new movement that has gathered steam and popularity in many countries, as a tool for advancing accountability in public life and enhancing the service of the media.
I believe that recent developments and trends in our country have made the adoption of fact-checking journalism compelling and imperative. The sooner Filipino journalists and organizations (like the Manila Times) subscribe to the movement, the better for our public life and our society.
Among these developments and trends are:
1. High incidence of media killings in PH
During the joint news conference of President Barack Obama and President Benigno Aquino III, a Fox News reporter asked President Aquino why 26 journalists have died under his watch. For his loose and misleading reply, Aquino has come under fire from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and the National Union of journalists of the Philippines (NUJ), and various pundits.
In his reply, Aquino said an interagency committee is investigating the extralegal killings.
He cited the Maguindanao massacre case, but incorrectly stated details and facts about this single deadliest attack on media in the world. He said 52 journalists were killed in the massacre. The NUJ corrected his statistic, saying that the actual number of journalists killed was 32; he evidently got his figure wrong because the total number of people massacred was 58.
Aquino tried to explain the lack of progress in solving media killings in this way: “We do not reveal the discoveries by our intelligence agencies and security services. Perhaps we are very sensitive to personal relationships by the people who are deceased who were killed not because of professional activities, but, shall we say, other issues.”
IFJ acting Asia Pacific Director Jane Worthington reacted with a pointed statement; “the Maguindanao massacre has become the centerpiece case for the international struggle against impunity and those killed are honored annually on the anniversary on November 23.
“The fact that the Filipino president cannot get the facts right on this very significant case, which has been campaigned on heavily during his watch, is beyond comprehension.” Worthington also noted that Aquino implied that the killings were deserved:
“The fact is the Aquino government has so far failed to bring the killers and masterminds of the massacre to justice. Any critique would be best directed inward to the state which was supposed to be responsible for protecting journalists under its human rights obligations and further to securing justice for victims. To date, it has failed on both counts,” she said.
“It is President Aquino’s responsibility to ensure that journalists in his country are free and able to go about their work without fear of retribution.”
2. Pork scandal and kiss-and-tell witnesses
The sensational disclosure of the P10-billion pork barrel scandal, The high profile politician-suspects, and the proliferation of witnesses under witness protection has led to many stories in the media that require thorough fact-checking prior to publication and broadcast.
The official investigation by the Department of Justice and the Ombudsman has been characterized by exaggerated claims and careless accusations, and incompleteness.
The wild-and-wooly Senate Yellow Ribbon committee hearings were chaotic and unfocused. Senators paticipated in the hearings to grandstand and be seen on live TV.
Nobody knows whether the testimony of the kiss-and-tell witnesses will stand up in court. Lawyers of witnesses and accused people are issuing self-serving statements right and left, and they get published and aired without being subjected to fact-checking.
The recent decision of alleged mastermind Janet Lim Napoles to tell all, and provide an affidavit and a list of senators and congressmen involved in the scam, has introduced a new story twist that challenges the best that investigative, fact-checking journalism can do.
Up to now, no media organization has bothered to check whether Justice Secreetary De Lima’s “truckloads of evidence” is fact or fiction. Media should ask Ombudsman Morales, because the truckloads were brought to her.
If fiction, what happens to the government’s case?
3. Coming SONA and 2016 election campaign
Fact-checking becomes highly important whenever the president delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address in Congress, and whenever the nation holds presidential elections.
Last year, President Aquino delivered a SONA which mentioned the word jobs just once or twice, and forgot completely to discuss unemployment and the millions who are jobless. He did not offer a single statistic on jobs and the jobless.
It’s not surprising that PNOY asked his Cabinet “What happened?” when informed about how high the unemployment and poverty rates have spiked.
The government has no programs to address or solve these life-and-death issues.
Every SONA is a recitation of self-serving claims of achievements.
It has therefore become important that starting this year, every SONA delivered by our president is subjected to thorough fact-checking.
Fact-checking journalism becomes all important also whenever there is an election campaign and an election at hand.
The 2016 presidential election will be one of the most important in our history, because it will signify, among others, generational change in our country.
The promises and policy agendas of candidates and parties should be subjected to thorough fact-checking, because truth and lies could be the difference between victory and defeat.
AFP report on fact-checking journalism
To provide some perspective on the global movement for fact-checking journalism, I’m reproducing below an online report of Agence France-Presse, posted a few months ago, which discusses the key ideas, trends and practitioners of fact-checking journalism in the world today.
The official name is fact-checking journalism, and it should not be confused with investigative journalism. Its main objective is to counter or expose misleading and outrageous claims of political and public figures. The same fact-checking should also be applied to the statements and reports of public agencies and corporations, whenever public interest is involved.
What follows is the AFP report, as edited by yours truly:
Journalists have always faced up to facts, but a new wave of fact-checking journalism has gained prominence in the past decade to counter misleading or outrageous claims of political figures. Notable among these are FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Following the notoriety in the United States, similar fact-checking news organizations have sprung up on every continent, gaining attention in places ranging from Egypt to Australia, Chile and France, according to a Duke University study.
The study led by Bill Adair, a Duke faculty member who was a founder of PolitiFact at the Tampa Bay Times, identified 59 fact-checking groups globally, of which more than 15 are in the United States.
“It really surprised me how much fact-checking is going on around the world,” Adair told AFP.
“I had no idea there was this much, particularly in places such as Eastern Europe. These sites are using fact-checking and are holding politicians accountable for their promises. It’s really become a strong movement in journalism.”
Recognizing the growth, the Poynter Institute journalism school has organized the first global fact-checking summit, to be held in June in London.
“Fact-checking is quickly becoming an important new form of accountability journalism,” said Poynter president Tim Franklin.
“Poynter will play a leading role to help journalists do their best work and foster the growth of fact-checking, which is vital to democracies around the world.”
A watershed moment for fact-checking was the 2009 Pulitzer awarded to PolitiFact, which closely monitored claims made during the 2008 presidential race with Barack Obama and John McCain.
PolitiFact used its “Truth-O-Meter,” which sought to assess the veracity of claims by both candidates and others. For example, the site labeled as false claims that Obama was born outside the United States, but also took him to task for misstating facts such as declaring that the US government spends less on energy research than the pet industry on its products.
Other fact-checkers use their own symbols. The Washington Post has won prominence and notices for its system of rating public statements and speeches. It assigns from one to four “Pinocchios” to false or misleading statements. Four Pinocchios would be the equivalent of an academy award for deception.
AfricaCheck, a regional service supported by the AFP Foundation and the Omidyar Network, has assessed claims of land reform in South Africa and economic data from Nigeria, as well as pointed to a lack of evidence in claims that some cities were the “rape capital of the world.”
Fact-checking websites often emerge from projects and newspapers or other media organizations, and in most cases are subsidized either by the news organization or outside funding.
“It is a vital public service but it is not profitable,” Adair said.
Fact-checking is not immune from the controversies surrounding all kinds of journalism.
Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, who has seen some of his claims questioned by fact-checkers like PolitiFact, has been a vocal critic.
“The people at PolitiFact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other,” Krugman wrote in 2011.
“So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”
MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow has also vented her ire at PolitiFact for rating as “half true” a statement about gays facing the possibility of being fired. “Fact-checking has to count for something and PolitiFact, you are ruining it for everyone,” she said last year.
And PolitiFact drew ire when it said the 2011 “Lie of the Year” was a claim by Democrats that Republicans “voted to end Medicaid,” the health program for the needy.
Lucas Graves, a University of Wisconsin journalism professor who studies fact-checking, says criticism does not diminish the value of fact-checking.
“It’s hard to establish something in a way that no one can disagree with,” Graves told AFP.
“It is especially true when it comes to the kinds of facts that politicians traffic. All the fact checkers I’ve talked to are open about this, they say it is as much art as science.”
Graves, who is working on a second phase of the study and will present findings at the London summit, maintained that “while it is impossible to nail down facts in a way to convince everyone, it is even worse to leave things in a way for politicians to spin any way they want.”
Graves said that the current wave of fact-checking is about a decade old, fueled by the Internet, the notion is a long tradition in journalism.
“What will be interesting to watch is how much this becomes a regular part of political reporting,” Graves said.
So far, he observed that even though fact checking has had an impact, “it hasn’t stopped politicians from lying.”
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I will conclude by recommending to media organizations, including the Times, to make a practice of fact-checking journalism.
For example, the Times can adopt the Pinocchio ratings of The Washington Post. No need to change names everybody knows Pinnochio.
Perhaps, we should also consider giving an award for the biggest untruth of the year. Women will give men a run for their money in such a contest. De lima with her truckloads of evidence, Kris Aquino with her vow of celibacy, Janet Lim Napoles with her list and tell-all, could be leading contenders.