Fact sites lack gravitas

When it is boiled down, it is just another group of high-minded individuals who believe they know better than anyone else … and want to tell us so.

Advocates of such sites see them as a vehicle to keep the public record straight, particularly on issues of a political nature, but as a journalistic initiative – as some proponents believe them to be – they fall far short.

Australia welcomed its first major entrant in this category last month, Politifact Australia, a spin-off of a site created by the Tampa Bay Times in America six years ago. The site checked the accuracy of 750 statements by presidential candidates in 2008 for which it won a Pulitzer Prize. It now boasts to have completed more than 7000 fact checks.

What it provides is a perspective … an assessment by one or more people as to whether a statement is true or false. This is provided on a graduated scale, such as mostly true, mostly false, or if they discover a real porkie on the local version, it will be given a “pants on fire” label. But it is hardly Watergate.

The domestic offshoot, headed by former Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Peter Fray, has set up shop prior to the Australian federal election, where it sees itself as an arbiter of political truth. In an interview with The SMH, Fray described his site as a “welcome addition to the journalistic scene because politics has got faster and noisier”.


PolitiFact Logo

However, despite Fray’s leap for the moral high ground, his site is adding to the noise rather than clarifying the public record. Despite any rigour that may be applied by site operators to a “checked” fact, in reality it is just another publisher competing for eyeballs in the digital space. And who says it is right? It is all subjective.

Politifact Australia awarded its first “pants on fire” rating to Jamie Briggs, the chairman of the Coalition’s scrutiny of government waste committee, for an accusation made in a list of wasteful expenditure under Labor.

Briggs had noted that “public servants are buying gold-plated coffee machines”, which Tony Abbott said later said in a speech cost $15,000. The impression given on the site’s home page is that the statement is totally false and Briggs is lying through his teeth.

It is not until the reader navigates further into the site that he or she finds that the coffee machines in question cost on average $14,989 each, but there was no gold plating. So Briggs’ criticism of the extravagance of the purchases was factual, but he has been hung out to dry for use of a metaphor.

Another fact checked on the site is the assessment by Treasurer Wayne Swan that Australia is facing the “second largest revenue write-down since the Great Depression” – which it rated as true. Why did they bother? It would be worth checking if Mr Swan boasted about the magnitude of the government’s revenue collection.

In essence, sites such as these are not a journalistic enterprise, nor a resource. They are out to cut the lunch of established publishers with cheap grabs. This is as far from real journalism as practised by newspaper masthead publishers as it gets. It is the job of journalists to establish facts and break news, not indulge in needless semantics.

Another fact-checking enterprise is about to be launched by the ABC, with $10 million of taxpayers’ money. The broadcaster is currently hiring staff for a unit that will check the factual basis of statements by politicians and other public figures, while generating content. Its work seems to be mainly internal, but an ABC spokesperson says the unit will have its own web page.

Now that is a frightening prospect – groupthink not only being accepted by the national broadcaster, but is being made compulsory. It does little to support the contention of independent journalism.

If there is improvement to be made to journalism standards, it won’t be achieved by caucusing on interpretation of facts. It would be far better to encourage better use of the journalist’s stock-in-trade – words and language. Standards have lapsed in recent years as a result of inattention to the teaching of basic grammar and proper vocabulary in our schools.

As a result, instead of being a style sheet for English usage among readers, mastheads of all varieties are being lampooned for howlers.

One recent effort in a Sydney paper comes to mind. After the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the paper ran a heading declaring: “Thatcher acclaimed. Howard fulsome in praise”. This would have been a surprise for John Howard. Fulsome, of course, means insincere or disingenuous; it does not mean “full or praise”.

Errors like this – along with mistakes in TV programs and the crossword – will erode the credibility of newspapers, rather than a failure to hold a committee meeting on a politician’s press release.

Ian Moore was the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun and a former of The Sunday Telegraph.

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