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What is fact-checking and why is it important in news media?

The Oxford Dictionary describes fact-checking as a process seeking to “investigate (an issue) in order to verify the facts”. However, while instructive, this necessarily concise definition is limited in its understanding of the practical outworkings of what constitutes fact-checking, the variation and scope of its practices, as well as the factors and social, political, and cultural contexts in which fact-checking has become an established practice.

The spread of misinformation is inherently human. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economic sciences, introduced the concept of “WYSIATI” (What you see is all there is), meaning that we tend not to look for what we do not see. We rather rely on the information that is directly available to us, without being fully aware of what we do not know.

If we just see some elements of a story, we construct the best story we can out of those partial elements. Part of the approach of fact-checking is the awareness of the cognitive biases innate to each of us. While these biases help us navigate everyday life, they can cause us to overlook relevant facts, even when they are clearly presented.

The use of facts and storytelling as a tool of political mobilization has been a long-established means to persuade the public of a group consensus. The Bourgeois of Calais and the more contemporary re-imaging of Trotsky are both examples of how manufactured consent used denial of evidence and outright physical manipulation of evidence, respectively, to tell a story that those in power insisted on telling.

The network effect of social media has broadened the sources of information and thus the construction of our narratives. Social media has also removed a primary filter of journalists as the establishment of truth-teller. Some politicians and opinion makers have seized upon this opportunity as an exercise of power.

The role of a journalist is to provide daily information: to provide accurate testimony of the political realm. But the reality is more than this information; it includes the availability of information from a variety of sources. We weave these stories into a comprehensive meaning for ourselves.

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