Theoretical base of fact-check as a journalistic format

    Authors: Pavel Bannikov, Tasha Sokolova

    The word of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary was the term ‘post truth’, which characterises a new way of consuming information, in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. The era of post-truth begins at the end of the 20th century (the term first appears in 1992), but flourished during the presidential election campaign in the United States in 2015-2016. This global challenge made it necessary for the professional journalistic community appeals to the fact-check format. Although the format has been in existence for more than 20 years (FactCheck.org, the first fact-check resource in the world, launched in 2003). Only in recent years has it acquired worldwide signification and implication.

    Oxford English Dictionary, 2018

    To date, there is no academic definition of fact-check in the world than ‘the process of investigating the problem in order to verify the facts’ (OED). This definition, as we think, is not quite complete, and does not characterise the role of a fact-checker within the journalism system. In this regard, we decided to develop a theoretical base, placing the fact-check inside the system of journalism.

    It is impossible to work with the term ‘fact-check’ without coming to an understanding regarding the term ‘media’. In this paper we focus on the definition of the ‘media’ contained in the Recommendation of the Council of Europe, which offers six fundamental criteria that should be met for inclusion as the media — intention to act as media; purpose and underlying objectives of media; editorial control; professional standards; outreach and dissemination; and public expectation. Thus, the new notion of media covers all types of old media (regardless of national legislation on any registration of the media), and also includes ‘new media’ – ‘blogs, social networking sites, cell phone messaging, and other relatively new technology applications‘ matching most criteria proposed by the CE.

    First of all, let us see whether fact-check could be put inside the already existing types of journalism — news reporting or opinion journalism. News reporting is the most established type of journalism — timely information about a subject of some public interest that is shared and subject to the journalistic process of verification by an independent organisation that is accountable. Opinion journalism is a younger type of journalism, which appeared only in the early 19th century in America. Its task is not so much to inform about an event, as to give the consumer a whole range of views, judgments, or appraisals formed in the mind about a particular matter. Obviously, fact-check can not be placed inside the concept of opinion journalism, since it deals with the personal author’s view of the problem, as opposed to representing an objective and comprehensive analysis. But is it possible to consider fact-check as a part of news reporting? On the one hand, the basis for both of them is pure facts, but on the other hand, there is also a significant difference. The basis for news reporting is a fact (or event), which is investigated by a journalist guided by the above-mentioned principles of work — independence, accountability and verification. From this basis, journalistic materials are produced. As a result, the very product of news reporting journalism can become the basis for a fact-check. Thus, fact-check can not be placed in the concept of a standard journalistic dichotomy of news reporting and opinion journalism. In this regard, we propose the introduction of another division — the trichotomy — in addition to news reporting and opinion journalism, there is a third field — establishing the truth of events and claims and finding the real relationship between them all. Therefore, we consider it necessary to introduce the concept of sense establishing journalism.

    Sense establishing journalism and its formats

    Sense establishing journalism is a type of journalism that uses products of reporting and opinion journalism as a source of materials, in addition to public figures’ statements and other narratives used in society, and makes an expert judgment about their connection with reality. Within itself, sense establishing journalism, just like reporting and opinion journalism, has a partitive classification according to the formats of materials. We avoid on intention genre division, used for reporting and opinion journalism, because, we believe, format becomes a more accurate definition of journalistic material than the genre in the multimedia era. The boundaries of genres blur out, materials are produced within hybrid genres, while the format has a more solid framework, set not from outside but within the professional community. In total, there are four formats of analysing journalistic materials (both from reporting and opinion journalism), public statements and common narratives. Let’s take a look on each of them more precisely.

    Fact-check is a format of sense establishing journalism that verifies factual claims in public statements and media. It is important to note that as a format fact-check can deal only with factual information, not with common narratives in the society, as they may not be factual. For verifying narratives there is a different format — debunking.

    Debunking is a format of sense establishing journalism verifying common narratives in society. This format does not mainly deal with factual information, but rather with the concept of myth. At the same time, fact-check and debunking can use the same methods of work, the substantial difference is in the object of research.

    Both of the formats work with claims that are well-established, articulated or embodied in reality (past and present). Another format of sense establishing journalism works with the concept of the future. The promise tracking is a format of sense establishing journalism that systematises promises given by public officials and monitors the timing of their implementation.

    Finally, the fourth format is similar to debunking and fact-check, since it works with narratives and claims, but it also has its own distinctive features. Propaganda deconstruction is a format of sense establishing journalism that explains propaganda narratives in the media and in public persons’ claims and its influence on public. A distinctive feature of this format is its explanatory essence.

    Thus, we come to the trichotomy of journalism — fact, opinion and sense, and the division of sense establishing journalism into the aforementioned four formats (note that as a whole sense establishing journalism is not limited to these four formats, in the future, new ones may develop).

    Fact-check and verification

    It is also important to distinguish verification from fact-check. In the English-language theory, these concepts are still parallel, but it can lead to some  confusion. In particular, OED defines verification as a “the process of establishing the truth, accuracy, or validity of something”, and fact-check as “the process of investigating (an issue) in order to verify the facts”. While these definitions sound synonymous, from our point of view, they are fundamentally different. To distinguish one from the other, we will use for “verification” the definition in the OED, and for the definition of fact-check we will accept the concept above. The table shows the main differences between fact-check and verification.

    Parameter Fact-check Verification
    Actor Journalist Any person in the communication process
    Audience Potentially unlimited Verificator itself
    Object Mass information distributed via communicational technologies Any information
    Skills System of special knowledge about the laws of media and the methods of journalists’ work No need for special knowledge about the laws of media and the methods of journalists’ work
    Goal To bring informational space into line with reality by verifying information To verify or specify information
    Product New knowledge Specifying of old knowledge

    This distinction of subjects defines verification as one of methods of working with information and fact-check as a format for journalistic materials.

    Verification can exist within any type of journalism and even outside it, since verification of information may be needed in other areas including,  the verification of scientific information or other common information. It is important to mention that the description of the verification process can not be interesting to anyone except the verificator itself, that is why verification does not produce any new material, whereas for a fact-check, the description of the journalist’s work in verifying information is an important sign of format.

    Specifying the research subject

    Definition of the subject of the fact-check as a format (statements of public persons and factual claims in media), promise tracking (promises of public figures) and deconstruction of propaganda (propaganda narratives) is fairly obvious. But the subject of debunking may create some confusion. Therefore it is not only necessary to distinguish fact-check from verification but also to divide concepts of fake, canard (duck story), gossip (rumor) and prank which all are in closest contact with the main subject of debunking. First of all let us take a look at the definitions of these concepts and then we will be able to analyze their fundamental differences from each other.

    Fake news — false reports of events, written and read on websites (or narrative related to the news agenda including visual narratives — Auth.); fake news often affect key issues of public importance and are mass spread with the intend to mislead in order to damage a public movement, public person, political campaign etc. The canard has all the attributes of fake news but a canard is created exclusively by journalists and distributed primarily in media, so there is no need to separate it from fake news.

    Gossip (rumour) — casual or unconstrained conversation or report about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true or a message about other people, including unconfirmed information.

    Prankpractical joke or mischievous act.

    To start, it is worth noting that all these categories have some similarities.Differences arise due to the fact that some categories are created by journalists, and others are most often created by ordinary participants of the communication and information processes. Information created outside of the journalistic realm may contain unreliable and/or distorted information. In addition, the creation process does not require any special knowledge or qualifications from it’s author. The differences between fake, gossip and prank are shown in the table below.

    Parameter Fake | Canard Gossip Prank
    Intention Conscious Conscious or unconscious Conscious
    Objective Mass disinformation Discreditation of a person Entertainment obtained from the disclosure of the truth
    Regularities of development Not modified when relaying Modified when relaying Rare relaying due to the targeted nature of information
    Method of creation Created using a technological means of communication Created as a result of an act of oral communication Could be created both

    through oral communication

    and with technological

    methods

    Audience Potentially unlimited Limited by the personal interactions of the author/subject. In the case of retransmission of gossip in the media, the audience tends to unlimited. Individual or group of people. In the case of retransmission of prank in the media, the audience tends to unlimited.

     

    It is important to note that the authors of fake news or gossip want their information to be accepted by the audience as truth forever. Unlike them, the author of a prank is ready to expose himself: his goal is to mislead the audience or the object of a prank only for a while and then inform the audience/object that the information is not true.

    Thereby fact-check as a format definitely works with fakes and canards as subjects and can address gossip that takes on a factual character and is spread in the media or through the statements of public persons. In theory, fact-check could work with pranks if the journalist can expose the prank’s untrue nature before it’s author exposes it — but this situation seems unlikely.

    Promise tracking does not work with any of three types of unreliable information described above. Debunking works most successfully with established narratives, including gossip and rumor, but this format also can work with fake news as a part of the narrative. Propaganda deconstruction works with all three types of unreliable information because this format includes in its tasks not only the identification of truth/falsity of information but also aims to explain why the emergence of such information has become possible in general within society and how it changes public discourse. For the format of the propaganda deconstruction it doesn’t even matter whether the the prank is already exposed by its author or not. The prank when exposed by the author also can become the method of  propaganda deconstruction.

    Forming signs of the fact-check format

    Fact-check can exist both as printed text in media and through audiovisual format. However, in any form of broadcasting, the fact-checking feature always has a number of characteristics that make it possible to identify it as a fact-check format. Like news reporting, fact-check is based on principles of verification, independence and accountability, but this format also has a number of significant differences.

    1. Format’s subject: media material or public statement of official person that includes a factual claim (for news reporting it usually will be the event of reality).
    2. Layout of material: factual claim with attribution — verification of the validity of the claim based on open data — making judgment about the correspondence of the claim to reality. The types of judgments about the correspondence between the claims and reality may differ in different variations of formats for different fact-organization organizations. But they always constitute a single field where “truth” and “false” are polar verdicts, and “half-truth”, “mostly truth “,” mostly false” (like ‘mostly true’ and ‘mostly false’ on PolitiFact), “manipulation” and other types of judgements determined by the internal policy of the editorial board. The required format-forming part of the fact-check is a detailed description of the verification of the claim, the methods of the fact-checker’s work and the logic and course of inferences.  
    3. Working principles: in contrast to reporting journalism (and even more so to opinion journalism) fact-check as a format makes it unacceptable to refer to anonymous sources, no matter how confident they are. All sources the fact-checker works with must meet the open source criteria. In addition, the principles and methodology of the editorial board must be available to the audience.
    4. Selection criteria: the claim/statement must be verifiable and the claim itself has to be factual,concrete, and connected with objective measurable reality. In addition, the journalist must be able to verify claims using only open data and available resources; public resonance (the significance of the claim for society, the impact of the sounded fact on the life of society and its individual members); and retransmission level (the number of citations and references in the media). It is important to note that timeliness (the statute of limitations) is not one of the main criteria, since information distorted in the past can have consequences and become actual in the present (for example — a statement by a Russian politologist that the former Swedish island of Gotland was a demilitarized zone, was founded on the fact that a Swedish journalist gave this information on air without fact-checking, and as such eventually the whole world believed that it was true).

    The last paragraph additionally identifies the fact-check as a format of sense establishing journalism — for reporting the timeliness will be one of the key criteria.

    Forming signs of the debunking format

    1. Format’s subject: existing (established) in society and regularly reproduced narrative. This narrative can concern a social group, a phenomenon of reality, established opinions about controversial historical facts, difficult to explain facts of reality, local mythologems, etc.
    2. Layout of material: description of the narrative (if the narrative is composite — each of its components should be described and analyzed separately, for example, in the case of a narrative relating to a particular religious or ethnic group, the number of constituents may reach several tens) — verification of the authenticity of the narrative and its constituents based on open data — making judgments about the correspondence of the narrative and its components to the reality in the accepted editorial standard where the extreme poles are the verdicts “truth” and “false”.
    3. Working principles: in debunking as a format it is unacceptable to refer to anonymous sources. All sources journalist works with must meet the open source criteria. The principles and methodology of the editorial board are available to the audience. In addition, it is possible to use scientific sources.  If necessary, it is possible to carry out an experiment that is documented with the help of technical means.
    4. Selection criteria: retransmission level, public resonance, fundamental verifiability (in particular cases — by setting up an experiment).

    Forming signs of the promise tracking format

    1. Format’s subject: promises given by public persons. Within this format, a promise means an assertion about an event in the future, to which a public person can influence directly by virtue of his official position. The event must have measurable indicators that are published in open access. There is also an additional parameter — deadline — if a public person does not name a certain date for promise, the term of execution means the date of termination of the official’s authority.
    2. Layout of material: the journalist summarizes and systematizes the promises given by public persons — upon reaching the deadline for fulfilling the promise, the  journalist also analyzes the degree and quality of performance and gives a verdict.
    3. Working principles: in promise tracking as a format it is unacceptable to refer to anonymous sources. All sources that a journalist works with must meet the open source criteria. For independent work within the format it is necessary to develop the editorial grading system available to the audience. For example at PolitiFact it is  ‘Not yet rated’, ‘In the works’, ‘Stalled’, ‘Compromise’, ‘Promise kept’, ‘Promise broken’. The grading system for other projects in this format may differ slightly, but in any case it should be public and open. To achieve editorial impartiality all promises have to be valued as equivalent, regardless of the resources necessary to implement them.
    4. Selection criteria: fundamental verifiability, public resonance. Retransmission level is not a key criteria in the format of promise tracking because a fact of public statement about the intention to perform something is more important for the promise of a public person than the retransmission level of this statement.

    Forming signs of the propaganda deconstruction format

    1. Format’s subject: propaganda narratives in media, public discourse and in the statements of public persons. Fakes and digital pranks can also be the subject of propaganda deconstruction if they include propaganda ideas or narratives. It is important to note that the objective of format is not to verify the authenticity of the information or to check for the presence/absence of propaganda narrative, but to explain the principles of designing this narrative and its influence on the public consciousness. Thereby, the fake can first become a subject for fact-check, which will prove its invalidity, and then the same fake can become a subject for the propaganda deconstruction if the objective of journalistic material is to explain how this narrative worked on and influenced the public.
    2. Layout of material: description of propaganda narrative, analysis of individual techniques of manipulation used in narrative and an explanation of the principles of the action of these techniques on public consciousness. Inside the analysis of techniques, can be used all methods of fact-checking, but the description of the verification process and its logic, the methods of fact-checker’s work and the course of its inferences are not a necessary format-forming sign for propaganda deconstruction.
    3. Working principles: in propaganda deconstruction as a format it is unacceptable to refer to anonymous sources. All sources of a journalist must meet the open source criteria. The principles and methodology of the editorial board are available to the audience. For the explanation and interpretation of narratives, this format is regularly sent to the scientific literature devoted to the technologies of manipulation of the public consciousness.
    4. Selection criteria: retransmission level, public resonance. Criteria of fundamental verifiability is not the key criteria because the objective of journalist material in the format of propaganda deconstruction is not to verify the authenticity of the information but to explain the influence of the propaganda on the public.

    Conclusion

    The concept proposed in this work allows not only to identify the fact-check as a trend and separately existing and developing format of journalistic material, but also considers a fundamentally different species division within journalism. This division in our opinion more accurately corresponds to the current state of the information space called ‘the era of post-truth’. Precisely for the most effective opposition of the journalistic community to the influence of post-truth we distinguished separately the sense establishing journalism and its constituent part — fact-check.

    The proposed terminology and methodology of a new understanding of journalism in the era of post-truth will, at first, allow to systematize knowledge about the already existing format of fact-check, and secondly, introduce a unified common concept of understanding this format and the principles of its emergence and dissemination for the international journalistic community.

    Gradual awareness of this new idea about the trichotomy of journalism by journalists (theoreticians and practitioners) will not only provide more precise knowledge, but also provide an understanding of fact-check as an important mechanism of media self-regulation that separates qualitative journalism from unprofessionally executed and delimiting factual and reliable information from fakes and other post-truth derivatives.


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