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April 5, 2017, 12:28 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Competing news outlets in Norway are building a new standalone site dedicated entirely to fact-checking is a new collaboration between newspapers Dagbladet and VG and the country’s public broadcaster NRK: “One of the first things we realized was that we had to sit outside our own organizations.”

In Norway, fact-checking is growing up.

The country of 5 million will soon get a site devoted entirely to fact-checking. Faktisk — which means “actually” or “factually” in Norwegian — is an unusual collaboration between rival news organizations that will be fact-checking everything from stories that are beginning to trend on social platforms to political debates to the media itself.

Editors at Verdens Gang, the Norwegian daily tabloid owned by Scandinavian media giant Schibsted, had been mulling over the possibility of a more permanent national fact-checking effort ahead of the country’s parliamentary election in September, with the warning posts of Brexit, the U.S. election, the fears around fake news in Europe looming large.

Instead of keeping the effort inside Schibsted, VG looped in Dagbladet, the second-largest daily tabloid in Norway.

“Six people were put into a secret dark room in downtown Oslo just before Christmas. We were told, ‘You’re going to outline a strategy for how this initiative could work, and work together.’ It took maybe just five minutes before we were all speaking freely,” Kristoffer Egeberg, a longtime investigative reporter for Dagbladet, who is heading up the new Faktisk team, told me. “One of the first things we realized was that we had to sit outside our own organizations.” The team then brought in NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, as a third partner news organization.

Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation that focuses on freedom of speech issues, along with Tinius Trust (a major share owner of Schibsted), the Dagbladet Foundation, and NRK together invested 8 million NOK (just under $1 million USD) to kickstart the project.

Faktisk is skipping over what dominant platforms like Facebook might want to offer in the way of fact-checking and forming its own separate company, with its own staff of editors, reporter/fact-checkers, and developers. Jari Bakken, a VG developer currently working full-time on Faktisk, is building a new CMS to handle the work (with an assist from a few other front-end developers). All the development work will be open sourced.

“The developer team at my old paper had been asking, why don’t you use the CMS we have? We’ve spent millions developing a state-of-the-art CMS, so why are you spending time to use your own?” Egeberg said. “The answer is, we are not just making articles. We are making fact checks. We need a CMS that can cut up our fact checks into parts, that will then make it possible in the future to use it in automation and artificial intelligence efforts. Our traditional CMSes are not made for this.” (The team has met with research institutions like SINTEF and the IBM Watson group to discuss potential ways to scale tasks like social monitoring and detecting claims. Egeberg and Bakken both gave a nod to the U.K.’s Full Fact on its work in automating the fact-checking process.)

“A lot of journalism produced today is still just a chunk of unstructured text, and I think a CMS with a bit more structure than a normal article and some intelligence built into it can enhance the user experience for both the journalists and the audience,” Bakken said, pointing to various ideas that have been floated around by structured journalism evangelists. “A traditional fact check has a lot of information embedded in it that makes sense to pull out and store as structured data instead of text — the claim itself, who made it and where, where was it cited, reproduced or shared, what concepts, people, organizations, events, or locations are discussed, what sources were used to fact-check it, and what is the final conclusion or rating. The same is obviously true for a lot of reporting, but a fact check is a well-defined piece of journalism that always has these same components.”

As part of its mandate for transparency and openness, Faktisk intends to distribute and share widely any information it has checked and written up — its fact checks can be taken and embedded by any other news outlet or individual writer in their own work as they see fit. VG has an edition on Snapchat Discover in the Nordics, where the team also intends to distribute information to reach a younger audience. NRK had been planning a television program around fact-checking leading up to the country’s September elections, in which Faktisk may now also play a part.

It’s also hoping to team up with more media partners, Helje Solberg, editor at VGTV and chairman of Faktisk, said, “and based on the response so far, we expect that to happen.” (Also welcome: Facebook, if it’s interested.)

Issues around climate, international relations, and the country’s own elections will likely feature heavily on the site, and “a big job for us is to cut through and help people differentiate between what’s an opinion and what’s a fact-based statement which you can actually fact-check,” Egeberg said. “We’ll have five different conclusions on our scale from totally wrong to entirely true. We’re not using measures like Pinocchios. It’s important for us to use wording that’s quite neutral, that we’re not calling anybody a liar, which would throw gas onto the fire. We’re saying ‘this is correct,’ or ‘this is not.’ Not, ‘this is a lie.'”

In a country the size of Norway, and as a site whose founders are resistant to the idea of advertising out of conflict of interest concerns, foundations and large grants look to be the primary sources of revenue for Faktisk: “We will focus on large donations to fund Faktisk — we do not expect to significantly fund it through crowdfunding, though we acknowledge that crowdfunding can strengthen the relationship with our readers,” Solberg said.

“Initiatives like this are often only something we do before an election. It’s hard for one newspaper to keep up such substantial efforts — maybe NRK could do it because it’s public-fee-supported,” Egeberg said. “But we’re trying to gather more resources and partners to have an organization which has the stamina to keep up and live through the election, through 2017, 2018, 2019 — and hopefully be a permanent addition to the media family in Norway.”

POSTED     April 5, 2017, 12:28 p.m.
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