Fact-checking, redux

This year’s Newsfoo felt to me rather different from the 2010 edition. There seemed to be less discussion of how to sustain or resource news, or about the contexts of news consumption, and more about how to deal with some of the cognitive, knowledge-management and even ethical issues of news journalism. This post is on initiatives/tools for fact-checking and knowledge management in the news [Update: a more current list is here.]

Knowledge management, fact-checking in news organisations

After last year’s Newsfoo, I pondered whether “a key emerging role for news media and journalists might lie in more systematically tracking and unpacking the nature and web of connections, instances and influences that flow to and through and from events” – Bruno Latour’s Macospol is one example of how this might be done. Some human rights organisations are using new tools to collect and mine data, build and visualise patterns, and draw conclusions and present evidence (e.g. B’Tselem’s pretty jaw-dropping forensic collaboration with Situ Studio and Goldsmiths). What kinds of tools and methods are news organisations using to conduct this kind of work – establishing facts, establishing connections, and building a web of evidence that helps people decide what is happening around them?

Three Newsfoo discussions in particular prompted this post (alongside Baratunde‘s reminder to us all that The Onion has fact-checkers):
– Jonathan Stray asked first how news organisations could implement better knowledge management as they gather and process information – in a sense, a “context layer” for the web. As one person put it in another discussion, “the process of journalism is very lossy”, in that a lot of labour-intensive, useful information gathered in the process of doing journalism never gets used, or stored and made available to others to search or build on.
– Dan Schultz and Sasha Costanza-Chock talked about how to provide a “truth and credibility layer” for news consumers when they interact with journalism: how do you know if a statement reported online is true or not?
– a range of participants came together for a session specifically on fact-checking, looking in part of how Politifact works, and other initiatives (like this) enabling quite granular analysis of political and business discourse and reporting.

Also, a week before Newsfoo, Craig Newmark had posted on how he’s extremely dissatisfied with the state of fact-checking [UPDATE: and a new post from Craig Newmark at Nieman Lab continues to argue that fact-checking and -challenging is a critical part of how news organisations earn, retain and grow trust]. And a week ago, Ethan Zuckerman wrote helpfully about Morningside Analytics’ work on the US online fact-checking ecosystem, and Lucas Graves’ work on the landscape of fact-checking in the US. There’s a lot of discussion about the state of fact-checking generally at the moment, so I won’t retread the discussions had in these sessions at Newsfoo (not least since there was a fair amount of FrieNDA.)

So read on for a list of resources mentioned in these Newsfoo sessions, along with some others I’ve added to round things out a bit – I hope it’s of use. Most of these are US/UK only – who’s doing this in other parts of the world, in other languages? Thoughts? Additions? Let me know through the comments box!

–> making information gathered during the news/research process more useful
SoundNote helps journalists, researchers and others link their text notes to raw audio. It’s a little like a LiveScribe pen, but as an iPad app. This all reminds me of Matt Thompson’s Speakularity – what happens when all audio and video content is automatically transcribed and collaboratively corrected and annotated?
Palantir and their video explainers – Jonathan called Palantir’s knowledge management technology “state of the art”, and wondered whether this (or something like it) could be adapted for use by journalists, in addition to the existing government/intelligence and finance products, if it’s as secure as Palantir claim. Would this allay Christopher Soghoian’s fears about journalists and information security? In a similar vein, I’d also ask whether this could be used for human rights organisations, especially resource- and technology-poor ones worldwide.
– Jonathan also recommended reading Tim Berners-Lee on the Semantic Web – rather than an automated, algorithmic system that analyses the world for us, he conceives it as a better way for us of annotating the world.
DocumentCloud came up at the previous Newsfoo as a key tool for journalists to share and annotate source material they have used in their journalism. Lots of people are talking about how to establish reputation for individuals online – commenters, journalists, and so on – but what about the source material itself? Do we need a score a bit like PageRank or some kind of citation analysis embedded in a piece of journalism to help readers to see how influential a piece of source material has been?
– And from the Mozilla Festival a few weeks before Newsfoo, a handbook for data-driven journalism is underway (version 0.1 here)
– a suggestion was also discussed to combine elements of knowledge management with fact-checking, by creating a simple checklist for journalists submitting articles to fill out as part of the workflow: have you put your source documents on DocumentCloud? Have you provided links to your online sources? Is this based on a press release? And so on… News organisations could choose to make any or all of this public for users to help them decide what to read.

–> fact-checking statements made by politicians and the media
TruthSquad is a community-powered fact-checking system, aimed at fact-checking statements from all parties in the 2012 US Elections. It builds on previous experiments by NewsTrust: “Our first pilot took place the week of August 2nd, 2010, with the help of our partners at the Poynter Institute and our advisors at FactCheck.org […]. Check our findings from this pilot on the NewsTrust blog — and the article from Read Write Web on NYTimes.com. At the end of 2010, we conducted a second pilot with MediaBugs.org and RegretTheError.com, focusing on statements from reporters or commentators (not politicians). In September 2011, we started a third pilot, to test our new fact-checking form and experiment with new types of claims.”
NewsTransparency is a similarly community-driven site that focuses on individual journalists rather than facts. Both Poynter and a commenter (rather more forcefully) on the Knight Center at UT blog have expressed concerns about how easy it might be to misuse this kind of reputational system.
Politifact aims to provide citizens with a rapid idea of whether a statement made by a politician is true, partly true or false. Here’s more about the service and how it works, and here’s their team. It’s part of the St Petersburg Times in Florida – which exercised Gawker this week, after the site announced its Lie of the Year, stoking a lot of controversy among liberal commentators in the US.
Truth Goggles is a browser plugin being developed by Dan Schultz at MIT Media Lab, and uses sites like NewsTrust and Politifact to tell a reader whether statements made in an article are true or not – this is a deliberate limitation, he says, as he’s focusing on the user side, rather than the data source side. Dan talked about the need for a “truth and credibility layer” when reading or watching news online – here’s Dan’s introduction to the project, and here’s The Register’s take. Dan’s also working on a project called ATTNSPAN.
Hypothes.is is a new non-profit initiative looking to bring sentence-level collaborative annotation of information and writing on the web – it’s based on an emerging open standard for annotations.  They’re looking for Fellows who can help them develop a robust reputation-modelling system (application deadline is Wednesday, 4th January 2012).
The Washington Post and the UK’s Channel 4 News both have fact-checking blogs, and Ben Goldacre has written a science fact-checking column in The Guardian for years now. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of this kind of watchdogging (as Ethan’s post on Lucas Graves mentions).
DisputeFinder (part of Intel’s wonderfully named Confrontational Computing team, which researched how people argue on the web) – a now-defunct Firefox extension that helped readers identify disputed claims online (via Dan Schultz).
– SpinSpotter, also defunct, was cited as an example of how not to do this…
– and no list would be complete without Snopes – an old stalwart of online myth-busting, with some journalistic moments. Very useful for cross-checking email scams, hoaxes (and for telling your mother that the email she just forwarded to 300 people is in fact a hoax.)
UPDATE (22 Dec) – Here’s a tool proposed by NewsMotion.org for rating contributions to journalism on the web: ReticulatorUPDATE (9 Jan 2012) – Global campaigning community Avaaz is soon to launch a news service, and is advertising for a fact-checker.

–> tracking, mapping and visualising hidden things
Muckety maps and let you explore “relationships of the rich and powerful”. Here’s more about the team behind it, and here are some of their sources. If you want to use it, you need to license it.
Little Sis is broadly similar (more about them, their team and their list of source data) but takes an open-source, partly wiki approach, has a few training videos for would-be contributors, and provides an API. They provide highlights from their data via their blog.
Influence Networks is an open-source relationship mapper created by OWNI, Transparency International, Die Zeit and ObsWeb. Looks like early days at the time of writing (added Feb 2012).
Poligraft allows you to plug in the text or URL of a news article, blog post or press release, and it will show you “an enhanced view of the interconnections between the people, organisations and relationships mentioned in the piece.” It’s got a bookmarklet you can use too. This reminds me a little of the Media Standards Trust’s Churnalism tool, which allows you to put in the URL or text of a news article, and tells you (in theory) what percentage of it is recycled from press releases.
– Truthy is a meme tracker for Twitter – it’s based at Indiana University, and “helps you understand how memes spread online. We collect tweets from Twitter and analyze them. With our statistics, images, movies, and interactive data, you can explore these dynamic networks.” (The Guardian used a similar idea in a journalistic context, but built it a different way.) Here’s more about Truthy.
– I tweeted a link to Sentinel Visualizer Software, which is being used by human rights organisation Videre to analyse patterns of incidents and abuses – I’d be interested to see journalistic instances of this or similar tools.
– and it’s easy to forget that someone owns the way we search for information – CommonCrawl, by contrast, is a truly open crawl of the web – here’s where they are headed next.


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