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INTERVIEW: Why ‘funding diversity’ is crucial for sustainability of fact-checking organisations — IFCN Director

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On the sidelines of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference held in Washington DC recently, DUBAWA Editor Kemi Busari sat with Angie Holan, the new Director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Ms Holan, who was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for the 2008 fact-checking of the U.S. presidential election, spoke on issues around government interference in fact-checking, business models, gender fact-checking, among others.

It’s been about three months now; how is it going with your new role? How are you connecting with the fact-checking community globally?

It’s been terrific so far. I was fortunate to have started my new position with a visit to Seoul, South Korea, for our GlobalFact10, where I met many of our fellow fact-checkers. Now, I think about the concerns of everyone versus one fact-checking organisation.

Learning about the different countries and cultural contexts of fact-checking has also been wonderful. We have a universal core commitment to principles of accuracy, transparency, fairness, and open corrections process irrespective of our countries’ specific politics and cultural attitudes. At its core, the fact-checking is the same.

What are your thoughts on fact-checking organisations in Africa and the growing community?

I’m looking forward to learning more about fact-checking in Africa. I have seen it grow since 2014, when fact-checkers came together for the first time globally in London. The first fact-checking organisation I met was Africa-Check, and since then, I’ve seen the organisation grow around the continent. I’ve also seen new organisations like DUBAWA, affiliated with investigative journalism, come up. I’ve seen other groups like Pesa Check.

It’s also been wonderful to see the collaboration of the fact-checkers. They have a good spirit, cooperate on election coverage and support one another through regional networks. So, it’s been a terrific story of growth, and I want to do everything I can to help it continue.

In Africa and in other parts of the world, fact-checking is fast becoming a major part of elections. What can you say about these developments? And what is your advice to the fact-checkers, especially those working on the Liberia election and other related elections?

Fact-checking elections is a very natural fit for fact-checkers. We would cover the campaigns, the messaging, what the candidates say, and what independent groups say because, as we all know, in elections, a lot of people are trying to influence the outcome. So, fact-checking campaign messages is critical.

However, my advice to any organisation would be to plan. Set your standards for what you think will be fair coverage. Ensure you do everything you can to distribute your fack-checks when the voters pay attention. Many voters don’t tune in towards the end, so be energetic to get your fact checks in front of people.

There’s a growing train of government’s fact-checking or counter-fact-checking globally. This worries a lot of fact-checkers in some countries. What’s your take on this, and what is the IFCN position?

The IFCN has been monitoring this trend. I certainly would be interested in hearing about specific examples because I think this is a case where things can unfold very differently in various countries, so we have to be cautious. We would check if there are statements that the IFCN needs to make that support fact-checkers.

A few things about government fact-checking are that a lot of the message is defending the government, which is not fact-checking. Fact-checking has to be independent. So, if you are a government and your supposed fact-check defends your policies, that’s not fact-checking. I would discourage governments from labelling what they’re doing as fact-checking. The government is the only agency with the scope to collect census and environmental statistics. I would encourage the government to collect and supply evidence to fact-checkers. The government has its interests, but we also want to encourage the government to be evidence-based and factual in all of its messaging.

INTERVIEW: Why ‘funding diversity’ is crucial for sustainability of fact-checking organisations — IFCN Director
Busari having a chat with Holan

We’ve seen attempts by governments to regulate fact-checking in some countries. A specific example is in Nigeria prior to the election when a government agency wanted to ‘certify’ fact-checkers. What’s the IFCN’s approach towards this?

We will oppose any regulation discouraging the independence of fact-checkers and their findings. Beyond that, different countries have different laws and traditions around media regulations, so we have to look at all of that very carefully.

A couple of new fact-checking organisations have been worried about the inability to sign up for IFCN signatories. What’s the IFCN doing to alleviate this challenge?

A few different dynamics are going on here. In some ways, the IFCN has been a victim of its success. We have seen an explosion of applications in the past year, and we try to go through them in our usual process as best we can. But frankly, we’ve had so many applications that it has slowed down our process. As you know, our methodology is to have every applicant assessed by an independent media expert, reviewed in depth by the IFCN staff, and then go to the board of advisors for a vote. At every step of that process, there can be complications or slowdowns. So that is one of the issues.

Another issue is that sometimes we have fact-checking organisations that apply but are still waiting to become signatories. To be a signatory, you have to meet several benchmarks, you have to publish regularly, and your fact checks have to be sourced. Our latest global fact-check grant programme had a build segment to fund and encourage fact-checking organisations.

However, we want to see the process taking less time than it has been lately, and we are doing our best to speed it up. It’s one of our top priorities.

The business model for fact-checking has been on the lips of many fact-checkers. Some organisations rely solely on the funds they get from the Meta fact-checking partnership, and on the other hand, some are outside the partnership and are struggling. So, what’s your position on fact-checking organisations relying entirely on funding from Meta? Secondly, how do we innovate with the business model so that fact-checkers remain independent?

Sustainability is one of the most pressing issues facing our community. The IFCN, as a network, encourages our members to find the sustainability model that works for them. We don’t have a position on who should fund fact-checkers or how they should be funded. We are okay with organisations’ position as long as their independence is preserved and they’re still meeting the fact-checking standards.

Sometimes, I’m asked if the IFCN can do something to help a signatory work with Meta, and we really can’t. Those are independent decisions between Meta and the fact-checking organisations themselves.

However, I don’t think anyone or any business would be comfortable having all their funding come from one source because they will lose all their funding when circumstances change. For funding diversity, this is something where the community needs to come together and share its best ideas.

I plan to convene a working group on sustainability where we can discuss these issues as a community and share best practices. One thing will not save journalism, but many things together might save it, which is true for fact-checking.

Regarding gender fact-checking, a situation where a particular gender has been targeted with misinformation or disinformation. We see that a lot in Nigeria; what should be the best approach for fact-checkers?

We need to be very delicate to communities and individuals in delicate situations. So, people who are marginalised or have traditionally been victims of violence or harassment (women) must have sensitive coverage.

Fact-checking organisations must have their standards, but combining the two principles of being cautious about the dangers of amplification and being extremely sensitive to communities and individuals under threat is the best way to proceed.

What would you say about the work DUBAWA does in Africa?

The work has been incredibly valuable, and it’s been wonderful to see DUBAWA recognised at our global fact-checking conference with the award for its fact-checking efforts against false cures. I congratulate DUBAWA for the growth of the many countries it’s operating in. I also love to see its partnership with investigative journalists in its region. That’s extraordinarily powerful – a natural relationship between fact-checkers and the investigative journalism community. People should look to DUBAWA as a model for organising fact-checking organisations in other countries.

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