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InFact: How the Independent seeks to flip the fake news crisis on its head

The Independent has become the latest media brand to launch a fact checking division

The Independent believes it is better positioned than such organisations as the BBC to call out fake news and the intention by the media and political figures to spin stories for their personal gain.

But at the same time, the Independent has been singled out by Buzzfeed’s political editor Jim Waterson as one of a group of news providers which publishes “incredibly partisan headline stretching facts to the absolute limit”. Waterson claimed the UK doesn’t have a fake news industry because our partisan newspapers “already do that job”.

“That was our equivalent of fake news – headlines that didn’t really stand-up to scrutiny,” he said.

The Independent’s editor Christian Broughton said the publisher is free to take a stance on news issues and that doesn’t affect its reliability as a witness to history, or source of news. He assured The Drum that there is “nothing Machiavellian going on behind the scenes”.

“There is a great difference between the intention to spin and [sticking to your] beliefs. There is no agenda,” he said. “We don’t have to sit on the fence in order to be factual, dependable and reliable. We can present the truth in a powerful way.”

“We have very partisan headlines. Anyone who knows the Independent knows that we take a stance on news issues and I think that is absolutely right to do that. Does that mean we are unreliable witnesses to history? Absolutely not," he added.

In fact, it is the Independent’s freedom to take a stance which Broughton believes makes them better positioned than the impartial BBC to debunk facts in a “powerful way”.

He said the BBC’s fact checking division, Reality Check, puts things across in a “muted, cool way”, largely because it has a remit to be completely impartial in its reporting. For Broughton, when fact checking becomes “very dry and encyclopedic it loses its punch, it doesn’t grab attention”.

“If they were a better publisher to do this, why weren't they in the top 10 most shared publishers in US election?” he said. According to NewsWhip, the Independent had the sixth most engaging content of any global news brand during US election, and was the only UK brand to make the top ten list.

“Extraordinary things are happening this year and people need to care about them, they do care about them, they care passionately. The challenge for media is being passionate and driven but reliable and factual and dependable.

“If the media did a great job of presenting their stories accurately, fairly but with great clarity and passion, if we the established media get our authoritative journalism over to people then everyone wins,” he added.

But unlike the BBC the digital publisher has more than just readers to gain from its InFact initiative. InFact will be monetised in the same way the rest of the Independent site is, through advertising.

“I don't see why not, advertising doesn’t influence our editorial at the moment,” said Broughton, when asked if InFact will be monetised. “If it [advertising] is good enough for elsewhere on the site and I don’t see any reason to not have that on InFact.”

The role of journalism

Other publishers have argued against launching dedicated fact check divisions as fact checking is, and has always been, the role of journalism anyway. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop called it “one of the basics of journalism”, snubbing the idea that it would have to ramp up its investment in fact-checking in response to the proliferation of fake news.

Broughton called out such ideals as the failure of established media, where often brands “sit back and do nothing” rather than innovate as a business.

“Often the conclusion of discussion points is we don't need to do anything, but carrying on as usual will not work. While I do think the principles of fact checking have to run through everything in journalism, certain times call for certain initiatives.

“I don’t think there is any harm in news ideas, I think our industry could do with encouragement to innovate,” he said.

Facebook has good news too

The spread of fake news has roots in social media, a platform for any voice, authentic or not, to publish content. Where many in media have called out the likes of Facebook for diminishing the value of news and having irresponsible editorial practices, including executives from Channel 4 and News UK, Broughton believes recoiling from the platform is counterintuitive.

“There is a danger in the media that people see fake news on Facebook and recoil from it. My reaction is to say there are readers who are news hungry on Facebook, let’s give them some quality news that they want and will share. No one consumes fake news deliberately, people want the truth.”

“Facebook are getting a rough ride, seen as the land of fake news. It is also the land of a lot of good news,” he added.

It’s in his interest to support Facebook, as a digital-only publisher. With no newspaper to fall back on, it has no choice but to work with the social networks to access their unmatchable reach. But Broughton believes that ridding the Independent from the shackles of print puts it in a unique position to tackle fake news, since it has the combination of “the respect of an established brand” and the flexibility to “move to new platforms on digital”.

“Having print in the equation inevitably leads you to make certain decisions, inevitably there is an element of compromise. You have to make decisions that work well for two different things. Look at the style of the quality pure play versus some of the established legacy brands, there is a difference within those styles and I think we combine the best of both,” he said.

InFact will have its own channels on Facebook and Twitter, and will be calling on social media users to flag any stories they perceive as fake for the Independent to investigate. Since fake news has varying definitions and degrees, Broughton said the focus is on “grievous levels of spin”, rather than well-intentioned journalist slips.

When Broughton talks of InFact, it is often as an example of how the publisher is being innovative as a business. But when an initiative is monetised and used for commercial gain, does it become a business transaction rather than an altruistic tool? Are the two mutually exclusive? Perhaps not.

“If this is something that gets the established, factual media noticed, if it crystallizes them, that is a good thing right now,” Broughton resolves.

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