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March 18, 2014, 11:17 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The nonprofit Africa Check wants to build more fact-checking into the continent’s journalism

The site, backed by the Agence France-Presse Foundation, is starting in South Africa but hopes to spread elsewhere.

The words are superimposed over a photo of a soccer stadium sitting empty at dusk: “Imagine a dead body in each seat of this World Cup soccer stadium…THAT is the amount of whites killed in [South Africa] in black on white violence!”

south-africa-murder-soccer-stadium

South African singer Steve Hofmeyr posted that image last June, accompanying lengthy claims on his website and his Facebook page that white South Africans are being “killed like flies” across the country. And with more than 200,000 Facebook followers, the posts drew a fair amount of attention throughout South Africa, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

But were Hofmeyr’s claims accurate?

Africa_CheckThey weren’t, it turns out, according to a report published by Africa Check, a South Africa-based fact-checking nonprofit. (The best estimate available found that only 1.8 percent of South African murder victims are white; at that rate, fewer than 7,000 whites have been murdered since 1994.)

Founded in 2012 by the Agence France Presse Foundation, Africa Check is a nonpartisan outfit with the dual goals of checking the veracity of public statements and educating journalists across Africa on how to approach fact checking.

“I was not setting out to prove Steve wrong — I was setting out to understand the claims he was making,” said veteran South African reporter Nechama Brodie, who freelances for Africa Check and wrote the report last summer debunking Hofmeyr’s claims — which generated an outpouring of both public support and derision.

Africa Check’s mandate is to cover the entire continent, but with a small staff, its initial coverage has mostly been focused on South Africa, where it is based. It’s taken on subjects ranging from South African President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address to whether the filming of the movie Long Walk to Freedom, based on the life of Nelson Mandela, really “sustained” 12,000 jobs over two years. (It did not; nearly 11,000 of the claimed jobs were extras who worked an average of two days each.)

Led by dedicated efforts such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org and more aggressive work at traditional media outlets, fact checking rose to particular prominence in the United States during the 2012 presidential election, but the concept is relatively new to African journalism, according to Peter Cunliffe-Jones, deputy director of the AFP Foundation and founder of AfricaCheck.

“Fact checking isn’t an easy practice in the U.S. or the U.K., but I think it operates in a different environment in Africa, where it simply isn’t as easy to get a hold of the data and the quality of data you get a hold of is more questionable,” said Cunliffe-Jones, noting that there is not as strong a culture of freedom of information across much of Africa as in many Western countries.

“Not simply reporting what people say”

Cunliffe-Jones, a Nigeria-based correspondent for Agence France-Presse for five years, said he first realized the need for more fact checking among African journalists in the early 2000s after UNICEF and the World Heath Organization launched a campaign that they’d hoped would be the final push to eradicate polio in west and central Africa — with a focus on Nigeria, where most of the cases were originating.

The plan failed. Leaders in states in northern Nigeria were able to lead a boycott of the polio vaccinations that was driven by news articles that reported the leaders’ misleading comments on the effectiveness of the vaccine and its potential side effects. And with Nigerian cases left unaddressed, some of the infected traveled to other areas of the world where polio had previously been eradicated. If the false claims made about the vaccine had been properly debunked by journalists, polio might not have spread as easily or as far, Cunliffe-Jones said.

“That seemed to me, to be a classic case of, had the journalists quickly investigated the claims that the governor of what was the largest northern state there, Kano, was making and exposed the fact that it was specious, potentially you could have eradicated polio with the efforts of UNICEF and the WHO,” said Cunliffe-Jones. “It’s a very practical example of the failure of us as journalists to carry out our fuller, proper duties of not simply reporting what people say, but looking into them.”

So after joining the Agence France-Presse Foundation as its deputy director in 2011, one of the first initiatives Cunliffe-Jones undertook was to launch Africa Check. Inspired by the likes of PolitiFact, Africa Check launched in 2012 with six months’ worth of seed money from Google, which it won through a competition run by the International Press Institute. Housed in the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department, Africa Check has three full-time staffers plus Cunliffe-Jones, who works out of the U.K. The organization has been able to obtain sustained funding and now has aims to grow.

Africa Check’s content is frequently republished, without charge, in a number of publications in South Africa and other countries. The group’s arrangements with outside news organizations allows it to spread its message and ensures more readers see its content beyond the 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors who come to AfricaCheck.org each month.

The Mail & Guardian is one of the South African publications that publishes Africa Check’s content fairly regularly, and editor-in-chief Chris Roper said working with Africa Check allows the paper to publish thoroughly researched investigative pieces without expending reportorial resources that are already devoted elsewhere.

“Generally with us, and other South African newspapers, you have a volume of content you have to cover, whereas Africa Check can really focus on individual examples,” Roper said.

Africa Check’s initial focus on South Africa was prompted by the greater availability of data and information readily available there, Cunliffe-Jones said, but he added that the organization plans to expand to other areas of the continent, with the aim of even starting a French-language version for francophone West Africa.

“If we were going to be starting this up, we wanted to do it somewhere where we would be able to learn the ropes of doing this, in a place where it was easier to do it than in, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo or somewhere,” said Cunliffe-Jones. “From there, the aim is to start running reports from Nigeria. We’re hoping to go to East Africa as well.”

Providing an education

But no matter how large Africa Check gets, it’s unlikely to ever cover the entire continent by itself — which is part of the reason for its strong emphasis on the educational components of its mission.

“It would simply be too big to think of one website that has an operation in each and every country,” Cunliffe-Jones said. “That’s not the aim. The aim is more to provide an example that can be seen and that can then serve as a spark, as a catalyst, to both promote the idea of fact checking and to help support and enable others in the media and in civil society to do it for themselves.”

On its website, Africa Check publishes a number of guides and other resources to help teach people, both journalists and non journalists, how to fact check. They range from more general skills, such as “how reporters can ensure accuracy in their writing” to country-specific tools, like an overview of how to interpret South African crime data.

“Crime statistics are released every year, and they’re misinterpreted every year,” said Brodie, who also wrote Africa Check’s guide to understanding them.

Because of its location within the journalism school at the University of the Witwatersrand, it’s also able to provide hands-on education to journalism students who can work with the project.

“Africa Check embodies a range of important journalistic values: accuracy, independence, scepticism, questioning,” Anton Harber, director of the university’s journalism program wrote in an email. “I believe students are more likely to imbibe such values by doing work for Africa Check and seeing its impact than if we stand in front of them and lecture them on these things.”

POSTED     March 18, 2014, 11:17 a.m.
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