This article is by LSE MSc student Ariel Riera. Ariel is a Chevening Scholar 2017-18 and worked as a journalist at Chequeado from 2012 to 2017
In 2003 Brooks Jackson launched FactCheck.org, giving the name to a fact-checking style of reporting. This genre of journalism, understood briefly as testing factual claims in order to make public discourse accountable and more accurate, has been growing continuously. According to the 2018 Duke Reporters’ Lab annual fact-checking census, there are 149 active fact-checkers worldwide.
Latin American organisations account for 17 of the fact-checkers identified by the Lab and they share some attributes that reflect some of the peculiarities of the Latin American media landscape.
Smaller and more independent
Only five out of the 17 fact-checkers in the report are part of a traditional well-established media outlet or group (this sum includes EBC, Brazil’s publicly funded news service, which utilizes the tag ‘hoax’ to cover misinformation online). This contrast to the situation in the U.S., “where most fact-checkers (41 of 47, or 87 percent) are directly affiliated with newspapers, television networks and other established news outlets”.
“Most of the Latin American fact-checkers were born or consolidated in the independent media environment and were incubated in small newsrooms. That has pros and cons. On one hand, fact-checkers have great flexibility to experiment, but in the other hand also, their possibilities of growth are limited due to limited budgets” explains Dulce Ramos, Program Manager for the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
Ramos added that Latin American organisations have managed to overcome difficulties: “They have obtained funding from international donors, have joined the great technological platforms (Facebook, for example) in the search for solutions that pair technology and fact-checking as a way to reach more audience”.
Additionally, while in the English-speaking world “fact-checkers and investigative reporters are friendly but distinct”, as pointed out by the IFCN Director, Alexios Mantzarlis, within Latin America, many organizations carries out both types of journalism.
Five of the active fact-checking projects in the region are part of independent websites that also publish journalistic investigations or political reports: ConPruebas [WithFacts] from Guatemala; both Colombia Check and Detector de Mentiras [The Lie Detector] from Colombia; El Sabueso [The Bloodhound] from Mexico; and Truco from Brazil. Other similar cases, like Ojo Biónico [Bionic Eye] from Perú or Chequéalo PR [Check it PR] from Puerto Rico, are currently inactive.
Combatting a lack of information
In some countries in the region, there are problems with availability or reliability of data. However, Ramos highlighted as a lesson that “the lack of data hasn’t stopped the fact-checkers there. When something cannot be verified, they say it and they fight for the necessary data to be opened. They turn obstacles into levers”. In addition to traditional categories like “True” or “False”, many Latin American fact-checkers include “Unsustainable” as a category to mark the absence of public information to verify a claim.
Many fact-checking initiatives started as a new way to cover elections in the country and in some cases it persisted after the voting is over. In Brazil, the website Truco launched a satirical video during the 2014 elections and to complain about the lack of responses from the main Brazilian candidates’ press officers. The video published online featured the song‘Quizás, quizás, quizás’ ( ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’) in the background, including lyrics: “everytime I ask you, ‘what, when, how and when’, you always answer, ‘perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’”.
According to the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media women were underrepresented in the highest positions: within the Americas (includes the US and Canada), they represented 21.5% at the Governance level, and 30.4% at the Top Management level. In contrast, half of the active fact-checking projects in Latin America has a woman in charge: Agência Lupa [Magnifying Glass Agency], Aos Fatos [To the facts], Chequeado [Checked], Colombia Check, Detector de Mentiras, El Polígrafo [The Polygraph] and Truco. The participation is bigger when focusing only on those organizations that have signed the IFCN code of principles: five out of six are directed by women.
However, this could be the expression of a broader trend in digital startups. A 2016 analysis of 100 digital media outlets within Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, and Mexico found that 38% of the founders were women and that there were women in management positions in 57 of the initiatives. “This finding suggests that women are taking advantage of the low barriers to entry in digital media startups to go around the glass ceilings of traditional media and build their own publishing companies”, concludes the report from SembraMedia.
Involving the audience. Even if the fact-checking implies a certain kind of authoritativeness (at least to establish whether or not a claim is correct), Latin American initiatives have been trying to incorporate their readers in part of their process. The most common practice is to ask people to suggest what statements could be checked. In that sense, Detector de Mentiras has gone one step beyond, receiving suggestions of viral hoaxes on Whatsapp to check and committing readers to forward the result to their friends.
Meanwhile, Chequeado started to incorporate people during the live fact-checking coverage, receiving data that users were prompted to send through social media and allowing citizens to collaborate in the checking process as well. This was replicated by other sites, like El Sabueso. Chequeado also undertook experimental study with it’s audience in identifying checkable statements in political discourse, which had been commissioned by the organisation. There were 3,557 participants and the study concluded that “participating in a short training session significantly increased participants’ performance”. The resulting paper was published in Communication Research Report, a peer-reviewed journal.
“In my opinion, there are few fact-checkers to face the huge amount of low-quality information”, says director of Agência Lupa, Cristina Tardáguila. That is why projects like Chequeado and Agencia Lupa launched initiatives improving media literacy. “We have trained more than 3 thousand people. It would be great if many of them effectively check their mayors, councillors and so on. There is a need of ultra-local fact-checking, focused on what happens in a town or a county”, added Tardáguila.
To Laura Zommer, executive director at Chequeado, there are two main issues for the future:
“On one hand, it is necessary to figure out how to reach broader audiences, beyond the already convinced about the importance of data, and break the filter bubbles. On the other, we need to generate a public demand for data and avoid that fact-checking generates incentives for less usage of data by leaders”.
This article is by LSE MSc student Ariel Riera