Building a culture of accuracy in our public debate

Johannesburg is the world’s biggest man-made forest. Not quite right.

South Africa receives the largest number of asylum-seekers in the world. No longer true. South African whites are being killed like flies. Exaggerated. Nobody in the Western Cape has to use bucket toilets. Wishful thinking. President Zuma promises 98 new schools by a given deadline. Not done. Four hundred thousand South African whites live in squatter camps. Hey?

These are all claims made in this country in the last few months, which have been challenged by our Africa Check website – and knocked down, to the embarrassment of people like Helen Zille, Jacob Zuma, Steve Hofmeyr and Aaron Motsoeledi, and organisations like the BBC.

I love it. I imagine a situation where every public figure and journalist feels nervous about what they say or write because Africa Check might just catch them out.

This exciting project began when I received a note out of the blue two years ago from an editor at the AFP, the French news agency. The AFP Foundation, wrote Peter Cunliffe-Jones, wanted to start a network of fact-checking websites in Africa. The idea was to “combine journalistic expertise and crowd-sourced information to hold public figure to account for public statements they make”.

In America, fact-checking websites have been running for some years, and become part of everyday political contestation. For President Barak Obama’s last State of the Union speech, the New York Times had a team of 22 doing live, real-time fact-checking. Similiar operations have popped up in other places, like India.

I wrote back quickly to say the idea was excellent and timely, and journalism schools were “good potential partners as they provide a neutral venue, infrastructure and students”. What better way to train young journalists than to make them scrutinise the details of public claims? How much more useful would public debate be if we encouraged a culture of accuracy? How much more accountable would politicians be if their claims and assertions were parsed?

Wrong facts don’t just distort and mislead. They can cost money, cause hurt and even take lives. Think of those who do not immunise their children against serious diseases because of false claims about the side-effects. Think how exaggerated numbers of refugees in South Africa feeds axenophobia. Think of how fear is spread by figures for crime or disease?

Generalisations and loose assumptions are the enemy of the informed discussion on which democracy and peace are built. Worryingly, we live in a world where opinion is overwhelming fact, journalists under the time pressures of live news often have to go on assertions rather than wait for verification, and loose claims can spread rapidly through social media, feeding prejudices and biases and provoking inappropriate responses. Corrections may or may not be forthcoming.

Africa Check has been running for some months now with a small (okay, very small, if we must be true to the culture of accuracy) team scouring the media for claims and assertions which need to be tested. Experienced investigative reporter Julian Rademeyer now edits it and we hope to be doing more work across the sub-continent.

The site invites the public to put forward things they want questioned, and tells them what stories are being worked on, in case they know something about it. It also provides tips on how to fact-check and a blog to discuss the contentious issues.

It has been fascinating to find out what facts are checkable. So often it depends on the nuance of how you define or which way you count. It has been hilarious to see what happens when someone just asks, “How do you know that?” And it has been an eye-opener to learn how difficult it can be to get official facts from official sources. Government collects so much valuable date, but is often unwilling or unable to make it available in a useful form.
Since we started, there are 20% fewer false claims made by public figures. And accuracy in public debate is up by 12,7%. I can safely say that because I know these facts are uncheckable. Right?

Oh, and Joburg can still claim to be the largest man-made URBAN forest, by the way.

*This first appeared in Business Day, 18 July 2013

One thought on “Building a culture of accuracy in our public debate

  1. Important for journalists not only to check facts but also not to write rubbish. I doubt that you could teach them that. Your determination to keep in with your ANC employees inevitably prevents you from being objective and rational.

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