A new type of journalist is about to be born in Australia: the professional fact-checker.

Ten years after the trend started in the US with FactCheck.org, the Australian media is belatedly jumping aboard the truth-testing train. Two dedicated fact-checking operations will launch before the September 14 election: an ABC unit to check the claims of public figures and a local version of PolitiFact.com — a US site that rates political statements on a scale from “true” to “pants on fire”. They join Crikey, which has been running a regular fact-checking feature, Get Fact, since August.

The ABC’s fact-checking unit — funded as part of a $10 million top-up for the ABC news division — will launch by August and have a staff of around 10. As well as an editor and presenter, positions for three researchers and three producers have also been advertised. Unlike most fact-checking operations around the world — which are online or print only — Aunty’s project will have a strong broadcast presence. ABC head of current affairs Bruce Belsham told Crikey there is unlikely to be a standalone fact-checking program. Rather, ABC viewers can expect the fact-check presenter to pop up across the network of news and current affairs programs and in short, discrete segments on TV and radio. There will also be some use of crowd-sourcing through social media platforms such as Twitter.

PolitiFact Australia will be led by Peter Fray, a former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s the first international offshoot of PolitiFact.com, which was set up by The St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times) in 2007 and won a Pulitzer Prize for its work during the 2008 US presidential campaign. PolitiFact has a tighter political focus than the ABC project, which will range across other topics including business.

Fray says his site will have around seven staff — a mix of “bright young journalists and gnarly old hands like myself” — and will launch in May. The long-term sustainability of the site is unclear, and its business model a work in progress. Fray has put up his own dough to get the project going and is courting advertisers and potential sponsors. He won’t rule out eventually asking readers for donations.

Although the ABC has more resources to play with, Fray says his site has some important advantages. Unlike Aunty, which is starting from scratch, Fray’s fact-checkers will use the PolitiFact methodology, which has been tweaked and tested in over 7000 US cases. PolitiFact founder Bill Adair arrived in Sydney on Sunday and will spend the next 10 days coaching local staffers.

Fray also expects his site will be able to make gutsier and more definitive calls than his taxpayer funded rival.

“Fact-checking in the ABC will be a huge challenge,” Fray said. “It will be a big test for the culture of the ABC and the perceived culture of the ABC. The perceived culture is that they’re all chardonnay-sipping socialists. We know that’s a gross exaggeration, but it’s the perception. Sometimes they also drink riesling, sometimes shiraz.

“… the minute they fact-check something Tony Abbott said as a lie the ABC switchboard will melt down.”

“They will definitely be much better funded than we are. But it’s the ABC, and the minute they fact-check something Tony Abbott said as a lie the ABC switchboard will melt down … They will need nine people to fact-check the one person doing the fact-checking. We will be smaller, more nimble and using tried and tested methods from overseas.”

Although it’ll eschew provocative terminology such as “pants on fire”, there’s no doubt setting up a fact-checking unit is a risky enterprise for the ABC. The broadcaster’s critics — including in News Limited and the Coalition — are sure to pounce upon any perceived bias in which facts get investigated and how they are adjudicated.

Adair, who is stepping down as editor-in-chief of the US site this year, told Crikey some blowback is inevitable. “PolitiFact has disrupted the status quo in American politics. For years, politicians could get away with saying whatever they want without getting checked. When you disrupt the status quo, people are going to be upset by that.”

Although PolitiFact is extremely popular — the site had 42 million page views last year — it has no shortage of critics. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman last year argued:

“Politifact has lost sight of what it was supposed to be doing. Instead of simply saying whether a claim is true, it’s trying to act as some kind of referee of what it imagines to be fair play: even if a politician says something completely true, it gets ruled only partly true if Politifact feels that the fact is being used to gain an unfair political advantage … The simple fact is that in today’s US political scene, Republicans make a lot more factual howlers than Democrats. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Yet Politifact wants to be seen as nonpartisan.”

Krugman and other liberals were particularly riled by PolitiFact giving its 2011 “lie of the year” gong to the claim that Republicans had voted to “end” Medicare. Krugman and others argued this wasn’t a lie at all: the new scheme would still have been called Medicare but would actually bear little resemblance to the current system. The line between someone fudging the truth and simply using language you may disagree with isn’t always clearcut.

While acknowledging everyone won’t agree with every verdict, Adair insists the vogue for fact-checking will continue. “Around the world, journalists are realising they have to do more fact-checking,” he said. “It’s no longer enough, in the information age, to just pass on the soundbites from politicians — we have to tell our readers the truth.

“For too long in journalism there has been an ‘eat your vegetables’ approach  that says readers should have to read long, often dull, stories about policy and glean from that what’s true and what isn’t … The more fact-checkers, the better.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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