Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 28, 2017, 9:46 a.m.
Reporting & Production

This investigative outlet’s fact-checkers are traveling cross country to take its readers behind the scenes

Scotland’s The Ferret has partnered with local newspapers to cross-publish its fact-checking stories and hosted workshops in more remote areas of the country, such as the Shetland Islands.

More news organizations are launching dedicated fact-checking operations. But how will they get more of their audiences to care about their fact-checks in the first place?

“People who go to fact-checking workshops are, in general, more likely to be those that are already questioning facts. It’s a self-selecting thing,” Alastair Brian, all too aware of the insular nature of the fact-checking world, told me. Brian is a fact-checker at the Scottish investigative journalism platform The Ferret’s new fact-checking arm, the Ferret Fact Service, and has been helping The Ferret loop non-journalists into their review process through live events in geographically more isolated pockets of Scotland. It’s hoping to change a widespread perception in many areas of Scotland that the news media has become an untrustworthy gatekeeper of information.

The Ferret currently publishes all its investigations behind a metered paywall. Supporters can choose from several tiers of monthly subscriptions for expanded access, and as part of their subscriptions they become part owners of the project, with opportunities to identify subject areas they’re interested in seeing investigated or to assist with the actual reporting.

The outlet launched its Fact Service last April, supported by a €50,000 grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative fund, in response to a lack of media scrutiny during an EU referendum campaign filled with false claims from all sides — sometimes even amplified by the news media. In its first six months, the small team has completed more than 40 fact-checks, tested a live fact-check of the Scottish leaders’ election debate, held hands-on workshops, and partnered with traditional media outlets (it’s also now officially accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network).

Scottish news media is concentrated in Scotland’s “Central Belt,” a term that refers to the squeezed “waist” area on a map of Scotland, home to 3.5 million residents and its two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scottish national newspapers The Herald, The National, and The Daily Record are all based in Glasgow; The Scotsman is based in Edinburgh. Scotland’s two national televisions stations, STV and BBC Scotland, are both also headquartered in Glasgow.

The Ferret, too, is headquartered in Edinburgh. Its own subscribers largely fall to the left of the political spectrum, according to a survey conducted by a U.K.-based researcher earlier this year. The survey also found that 58 percent of The Ferret’s subscribers are male, and 58 percent are over the age of 56 — just 7 percent are under the age of 35. 87 percent of them are educated to at least degree level (the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the U.S.). And roughly two-thirds earn an income above Scotland’s national average.

Of course, not everyone consumes their news online; The Ferret has tried to consider access as well. 63 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds used the Internet for news last year, but only 18 percent of those older than 65 did, according to a report from Ofcom. Television was the main source of news for this demographic, but half of the over 65 age group also relied on printed newspapers.

To reach this older demographic, the Ferret Fact Service teamed up with Scottish tabloid the Daily Record to run one of its fact-checks in the print paper every two weeks. Since the partnership began, the Daily Record has published interrogations into the prime minister’s claim that tuition fees in England caused an increase in students attending university (found to be “half true”), and Scotland’s Transport Minister’s claim that U.K. government has left Scottish railways £600 million short of their funding agreement (found to be “mostly true”).

The Ferret has also tried to interest residents outside Scotland’s Central Belt with its fact-checking workshops. It isn’t alone in its filter bubble angst: just this past fall, for instance, Tampa Bay’s fact-checking operation PolitiFact undertook a similar project to travel to parts of the U.S., holding free open forums to explain their work, often to audiences skeptical of the outlet’s alleged “liberal bias.”

“These workshops contribute to our goal of giving citizens the tools to investigate the world around them and help to build the Ferret business, both by providing some revenue streams in terms of fees and by improving our connection with our audience,” Peter Geoghegan, The Ferret’s cofounder, said. (Subscribers can attend for free and non-subscribers for £5; costs to hold the workshops are largely underwritten by the Google DNI grant.) “If fact-checking is to move out of the online space and really shape political discussions in Scotland, then it needs to be seen, and understood, by mass market audiences.”

Earlier this year, for instance, Geoghegan ran a workshop in Shetland, the remote archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland. Journalists who’d attended the event in particular noted that this type of training was rarely, if ever, available or accessible in Shetland, Geoghegan said.

The Ferret has now also run workshops in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Anthruther on Scotland’s east coast. Growing interest from the public inspired the team to take more workshops on the road: Its fact-checking tour will include Dundee, Inverness, and Aberdeen, and the team has its sights set on island communities in the future. The Ferret is relying on both community networks and local media to get the word out about the workshops in some of the more remote areas. The Ferret said it doesn’t track revenue specifically from its events, “but the events are not a money-making exercise, and we aim to cover our costs and time,” according to Brian. Events are also an opportunity to encourage non-subscribers to become Ferret subscribers.

During a typical workshop, capped at around 30 people, the Ferret team will take attendees through a fact-check step-by-step.

“We show them where the claim was made, how to find the report the statistics came from, what to look for, and how to interpret the relevant documents and statistics and cross reference the claim against the evidence,” Ferret fact-checker Brian said. Then in the ‘do-it-yourself’ part of the workshop, attendees get a claim to fact-check themselves, using the tools and techniques they’d just learned about.

Workshop attendees have been diverse at least in age, with interested participants ranging from teens to people in their seventies.

“It made me think about the way I use and approach social media, both by way of reporting and by way of using it as a source,” said Alisa Wylie, a student journalist at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde’s who attended a recent event.

Photos of fact-checking workshops run by the Ferret Fact Service courtesy of The Ferret.

POSTED     Nov. 28, 2017, 9:46 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
Aggregate data from 47 countries shows all the growth in platform news use coming from video or video-led networks.
Many people don’t pay full price for their news subscription. Most don’t want to pay anything at all
Is increasing subscriber numbers by offering people rock-bottom trial prices sustainable?
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”