Election FactCheck 2016

Fact-checking the 2013 election

Fact-checking has been one innovation in this election that just might last. Not that it’s been perfect or without controversy. Not that political parties have necessarily taken notice. And not that this election campaign has proved more honest and transparent than previous ones - it hasn’t.

We just think fact-checking has been useful. Our aim at Election FactCheck was to contribute to public debate during this campaign through doing just one thing: testing political statements for accuracy. During a campaign, politicians throw claims around daily - about the economy, about education and health, about refugees and the environment and much more. Some of these claims are true, some are wildly false, but we have found that many lie somewhere in between.

The main thing we learnt about political discourse since we launched on July 2 was that often, a statement is “true” to some extent, but misleading when placed in context. “Facts” are used to draw conclusions that are not justified, to convince the public into believing there’s a problem when there isn’t really, or to claim there isn’t a problem when there is. Politicians from all sides get away with it too often, and it is corroding to an informed debate about issues critical for Australia’s future.

Some critics of fact-checking sites have claimed their rise is a symptom of the failure of journalism to do its job. We don’t agree. Of course journalists should test factual claims routinely - and they often do, although the speed of news makes it difficult at times. Social media, too, often holds politicians - and journalists - to account, challenging assertions and statements of “fact”. Dedicated fact-checking sites don’t replace other critical forms of journalism, but are an addition to them, an example of much-needed innovation.

For this election, The Conversation’s Election FactCheck has been joined by PolitiFact Australia, which has partnered with Channel 7 and Fairfax Media, and the ABC’s Fact Checking Unit. Sometimes the sites have checked the same statements, but there has been plenty of material for all of us.

We believe we are the first in the world to fact check statements through a collaboration between journalists and academics. Journalists have monitored speeches, press releases, advertisements, tweets and the media to decide which claims are worth checking. An academic with subject expertise has written a factcheck, which then went to a second academic for “blind review”. We found this process invaluable. On several occasions the reviewer questioned an aspect of the factcheck, which helped strengthen it, or emphasised a different point in the review.

I want to thank the academics from across Australia who have responded so positively to this project and have given their time and expertise to contribute to public debate. I also want to thank two fine editors who have worked with me on Election FactCheck - Liz Minchin, The Conversation’s Queensland editor, and Canberra editor Bella Counihan.

Our readers have been enthusiastic participants, suggesting ideas through email and social media. We are, as always, interested in your views about what you liked about Election FactCheck and what you think we could improve. The Conversation published factchecks before this campaign began, and intends to continue checking statements long after the election on Saturday.

Gay Alcorn
Election FactCheck