With my fellow students, I was asked to do a fact-checking process for the data journalism class; and this is what we did! So, here you will see our findings!
This is about a team project that consisted of five people. First of all, a news medium (Univers online) had to be selected from which various articles were chosen to make our analysis. Therefore, each of us chose an article and the fact-checking process began. Questionable facts were noted and relevant sources were investigated to verify the reliability of facts mentioned in the articles. Furthermore, it was considered very helpful if the journalists themselves could provide answers regarding any doubts about information in the article. Therefore, we tried to contact the writers of the articles, the fact-checking findings were presented, and afterwards responses were asked so as to conclude with the final results of the fact-checking procedure. The news medium utilized for this assignment is Universonline, which is an independent news source for students of Tilburg University. In general, it is considered as a trustworthy source, providing its audience with a couple of articles, with topics related -especially- to the university, but also news concerning science, society, culture as well as sports. It is also noteworthy that most of the articles are available not only in Dutch but also in English. Three articles utilized by Universonline for the current team assignment are in English and the other two are in Dutch. Thus, the articles selected for the fact-checking process are the following:
- “No laptops in lecture rooms in Utrecht University”
- “Drinking beer is not bad for you”
- “Amsterdam school boycotts Africa”
- “Student drinks through funnel and dies”
- “Erasmus students less likely to be unemployed”
The fact-checking process can ensure how accurate and trustworthy a story is before it is published. Fact-checking can improve the credibility of an article and reduce fact errors. After choosing five different articles from the same medium, the first step was to read the whole article carefully. The next step was to highlight and mark all the facts that we wanted to verify and double check. In order to ensure the legitimacy, authenticity and validity of the information mentioned in the articles, we started using the internet to fact-check. The internet can be a very useful tool for facts that need additional verification, because many studies and sources are available online. Therefore, we searched for any additional web sources that could confirm the details we wanted to check. We also tried to select the best sites for verifying the questioned facts. University and government sites were also checked in some cases, as they are usually updated on a regular basis so these were also powerful tools for our fact findings.
The following step was to contact the journalists of the articles directly to verify the facts. All the journalists were contacted via email and some of them via telephone calls. Concerning the emails, firstly we presented ourselves and the purpose of our project. The main goal of the emails was to find out which sources the journalists used for their articles and provide us with extra information about the facts. Moreover, we tried to conduct the whole email and the questions in a polite and professional way so that the journalists would not interpret them as critique for their work. After sending the email twice, three of us had a response from the journalist, who provided us with the sources that she used for her three articles. However, two of us tried to contact the journalists not only via emails and social media messages but also by calling the editorial office of Universonline and ask for their telephone numbers or any other way to contact them. Unfortunately, when the particular journalist finally replied, she refused to answer some short questions by telling that she was too busy; thus for both journalists who didn’t reply there were no other options available.
Some extra special cases of verifying the facts were by consulting students, who followed one or more classes of a teacher who was mentioned in an article as someone who forbids smartphone and laptop usage during lectures. Moreover, former Erasmus students were conducted to read the article about personality traits obtained by Erasmus program and to say their opinion based on their experience. Finally, people who were working in the University of Amsterdam and the press agency of Tilburg University were also conducted via telephone call and emails in order to verify the boycott to Africa.
The final stage was to confirm if the fact has been verified based on our own research and on the journalist’s response. We separate the facts in true, false, inconsistent or unknown/missing in order to make a final list and understand in general which fact belongs to which category.
All facts in each article were checked and can be summarized as overall main findings. In total, 35 facts were found in the aforementioned articles and checked on correctness. It was interesting that the second biggest amount of facts were labeled as not entirely correct, with a total of 8 cases. In most cases the information was copied from another source without (obviously) checking the facts. This caused the facts were half correct; e.g. when another side of a story was missing or important additional information was not mentioned. For example, in the article ‘Beer not bad for you’, the journalist wrote that 2230 youth children participated in a longitudinal study. However, according to the original source, it became clear that the research indeed started with 2230 participants, but in the end, there were 1596 participants left. The conclusion written in the dissertation was based on the remaining 1596 participants.
In addition, 4 facts could be remarked as false, probably caused by no fact checking process. In the article ‘No laptops in lecture rooms in Utrecht University’, for instance, it was stated that laptops were forbidden, whereas it became clear in other sources this was just an experiment, not a rule. A similar example was found in the article ‘Amsterdam school boycotts Africa’, where was stated that the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences boycotts Africa by forbidding internships and study-related travels to Africa. However, both UvA and HvA confirmed this was not correct; the University simply double checks whether a trip might be risky due to, for instance, the Ebola virus or hard political situations.
Also, 4 facts were considered as inconsistent; other sources were found and reported some contradictory information. In the article ‘Student drinks through funnel and dies’ a clear example was shown. In this article it was stated that the student died 20 minutes later in the hospital, however, other sources mentioned that he died on his arrival to the hospital. It still remained unclear what the actual truth was.
Furthermore, in 2 cases information was simply missing, indicating that a part of the information is true, but since some information was absent, the fact could not be considered as trustworthy. In the article ‘Erasmus students less likely to be unemployed’, it was shown that “the study was initiated by the European Commission (EC) and compiled by independent experts”, whereas pivotal information was missing; the anonymity of independent experts brings great difficulty to the readers. At the end, the writer of this article added that the Erasmus Impact Study was conducted by an independent consortium of experts led by several other institutions.
For 4 other facts it was still unknown whether they were correct or not. These were all cases where a quote or statement of a certain specialist was used, where it could not be verified by those experts whether this was entirely what they had said or not. However, in each article also some facts – in total 13 – were considered as true.
Although Universonline states that their information must be entirely correct, we have also found some conflicting information. In total 35 facts were checked, but only 13 can be considered as correct, 14 as not entirely correct (due to inconsistent, contradictory or missing information), 4 as unknown truths, and 4 as false. As Universonline also mentioned in their guidelines, their articles are often short which causes that information is deliberately omitted. It would be probably impossible – due to, for instance, time pressure – to check all the facts. Moreover, a story needs of course some context and, therefore, cannot be fully objective. However, an important remark can be made, since the greater part of all facts do not seem fully accurate nor reliable. In general, it can be concluded that for Universonline there is some scope for improvement concerning checking their facts.