When I tell people that I’m here in D.C. to do research about fact-checking in journalism, many find it surprising. Do you have to come to America to do that? Do Finnish news organizations not do fact-checking?
Sure, most Finnish reporters think they check their facts, but it’s not that simple. Fact-checking involves a set of skills and a certain mindset which are not a part of Finnish journalism in general.
There is a notable cultural difference between Finnish and American newsrooms and journalism education. American journalists (in quality media, I have to add) have a very different approach and attitude to fact-checking, because it’s something that was emphasized during both their studies and their training at work.
“If your mother says she loves you, get a second source” is the age-old slogan of American journalism education. It’s had so much use that it’s become a bit of a cliché.
In the U.S., fact-checking is also a job in itself, different to the assignment of the reporter. The fact-checker attempts to verify every single bit of information in the reporter’s piece, using the author’s notes, reference libraries, and experts, among other more inventive methods.
Many magazines used to have checking departments, employing either young women (in the early days, checking was considered a woman’s job) or, later, aspiring writers who want to hone their skills in journalism. Working as a fact-checker is a great way to learn about accuracy, balance, and credible sources.
The New Yorker magazine, with a 17-strong checking department, is still the bastion of this practice, whereas many others, like Time and Newsweek, have shut down their checking departments to save money.
In Europe, checking departments are extremely rare. In fact, I only know of one: the German weekly Der Spiegel runs the world’s biggest fact-checking department with around 80 employees.
In Finland, fact-checking is something that is mostly taken for granted. It hasn’t generated much discussion over the years. I was not offered any courses on fact-checking whilst studying journalism at university, nor were specific fact-checking procedures ever mentioned in any of the newspapers I’ve worked for.
During the last year or so, however, the topic has received more attention, mainly thanks to Finland’s first political fact-checking website, Faktabaari. The nonprofit has been checking politicians’ claims during both European and Finnish parliamentary elections.
As a Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I’ve been looking into different strands of fact-checking in journalism: 1) magazine fact-checking, 2) the rise of political fact-checking (also a product of the U.S., with PolitiFact and FactCheck.org leading the way), 3) verification of online content on the social web, and 4) how far could algorithms go in fact-checking.
I’ve been teaching workshops on digital fact-checking and verification skills for some years now, and spending four months deepening my knowledge will allow me to import more of the American know-how on this topic to Finland.
I think these are essential skills that journalists everywhere need to learn in order to regain credibility in a time when anyone can become a publisher.
Academic visiting programs, such as ours at the Wilson Center, are highly important. They allow professionals to step back from our daily pressures and concentrate on something we find truly important. As a result, we will hopefully bring back some fresh ideas to make our work, community, or society just a little bit better.
Text: Johanna Vehkoo
Visiting Scholar, Finnish Fellow, at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars
Founder of Long Play
For more information: vehkoo.wordpress.com
PS: Of course it’s also highly important to get to know local culture! I can tell you as a fact that D.C. has a great music scene, which was showcased on U Street on the first Saturday of May. The Funk Parade is an all-day event organized by local volunteers. Frankly I cannot imagine a mayor of a Finnish city dancing on a parade throwing beads to people, as Muriel Bowser did. Don’t miss this if you’re in D.C. next spring!