EUfactcheck: Journalists of SUSU are Mastering New Tools of Fact Checking

In the modern world, when an avalanche of information noise comes crushing down at us, it is very difficult to distinct real facts from fake information. In a time like this, the role of qualitative journalism especially increases. Today, it is necessary to improve the level of trust to new media and impart the skills of fact checking to journalists. This is especially important for assessment of political statements’ accuracy.

In summer of 2018, SUSU’s Faculty of Journalism joined an international journalistic project called EUfactcheck. Within the project, it is planned to develop pan-European platform for publication of fact checking results and implement a three-stage method of fact checking developed by EJTA (European Journalism Training Association), which is the same at schools of journalism of European universities. Globally, this project will serve for improvement of the quality of political debates in European mass media and for enhancement of citizens’ media literacy.

In an interview with Head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Doctor of Sciences (Philology), Dean of the Faculty of Journalism, Liudmila Shesterkina, and Associate Professor of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Candidate of Sciences (Philology), Anna Krasavina, we talked about participation of SUSU master’s degree students in checking of political news on the threshold of elections to European Parliament in 2019, about interaction with universities of Europe, about tools for fact checking, as well as about grading of news’ “truthfulness” and more.

– What is the essence of EUfactchecking project, and why it is so important for SUSU Faculty of Journalism’s master’s degree students to take part in it?

L.Sh.: The term “fact-checking” came in to contemporary media form classic journalism. Thorough verification of facts is a very important condition of a journalist’s work. Both the level of the audience’s trust and reputation of the edition as a whole depend on it. On the threshold of elections to European Parliament, the European Journalism Training Association (EJTA) organised a massive project called EUfactcheck, and participation of SUSU and some other universities from countries that are not members of the European Union made the project to be international. Within the project, it is planned to organise trainings and master-classes by members of the European Journalism Training Association on the EUfactcheck project.

The project brought together 150 student-journalists and teachers of journalism from more than 20 countries. They are going to carry out checking of statements made by European political leaders on the threshold of elections to European Parliament in 2019. Having joined this project, master’s degree students of the SUSU Faculty of Journalism will join their colleagues and will be able to evaluate the quality of covering the European pre-election race in Russian mass media. For our students, this is a unique opportunity to acquire competencies in the sphere of political statements verification, learn about the mechanisms of European Union’s politics, and get the experience of working with European databases and with strategies of working in social networks. All this became possible due to implementation of project-based learning at SUSU.

– In October of 2018, you took part in a conference of the European Journalism Training Association and a workshop-and-training on EUfactchecking project in the city of Thessaloniki (Greece). Please tell us more about it…

L.Sh.: At the conference in Thessaloniki, reports were made on various types of disinformation in mass media, and discussions were held regarding the terminology of fact checking. During the conference, all participants, including us acting as SUSU representatives, received procedural advice and recommendations on development of a national portal and educational module of fact checking, coordinated the schedule of publications in accordance with EJTA programme on the threshold of elections to the European Parliament.

– EUfactcheck is a pan-European project. What universities, aside from SUSU, are taking part in it?

L.Sh.: The project includes about 20 members of EJTA (European Journalism Training Association), they are: Thomas More University (Belgium), Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences (Finland), Paris Dauphine University's School of Journalism (France), Aristotle University (Greece), Pompeu Fabra University (Spain), Linnaeus University (Sweden), Utrecht University (the Netherlands), SUSU (Russia) and some more.

Fact checking initiatives become especially topical in significant life periods of the society and the state. For example, during presidential elections in France, a fact-checking platform that brought together journalists from different countries in order to identify “fakes” operated. With the use of this platform, citizens got the opportunity to address journalists with requests to check one or another statement and information reporting. Now we are facing the task to adopt this experience.

South Ural State University greatly supports the idea of a dialogue and interaction between the East and the West; the university is actively developing cooperation both in Europe and Asia. In 2020, a conference of EJTA dedicated to construction of a Eurasian “bridge” in journalistic education is to take place at SUSU. According to the new concept of development within programme 5-100, SUSU defines itself as a Smart university which unites Europe and Asia. Due to this conference, scheduled to be held in collaboration with the EJTA, our university is going to become a venue of intercontinental interaction and cooperation, which fully demonstrates the steps that we are taking to fulfill our mission.

– What are the tools of EUfactcheck, proposed at the conference in Thessaloniki?

А.К.: On the basis of recommendations that we received at the conference, we are going to form an innovative training module entitled “Fact checking and verification”, which is going to contain theoretical aspects of understanding the phenomenon of fake news as well as tools for fact checking.

– What tools exactly are going to be included in the module?

А.К.: Speaking about tools for fact checking, they are mainly being created abroad, in Europe and the USA. I don’t know any national inventions yet, but during master classes in Thessaloniki we got introduced to European inventions for content verification: for videos, this is the In VID platform, developed in Greece on the basis of the Institute of Information and Technology under financial support of the European Union. Such inventions become possible due to consolidation of technology platforms and large media, such as Deutsche Welle (Germany) and Agence France-Presse (France). There is also a Greek invention called Truth Nest for checking of social networks’ content. For digital content overall, the Athens Technology Centre developed a platform called Truly Media intended to provide journalists and rights advocates (Amnesty International) with tools for fact checking. This invention has been implemented featuring Deutsche Welle (Germany) on the account of financing by Google Corporation.

Master’s degree students are going to learn checking the truthfulness of texts on the basis of regional mass media materials. At the same time, the Union of Journalists of the Chelyabinsk region in cooperation with the Institute of Natural Sciences and Humanities are going to create national media platform, using which local citizens will be able to address with requests to check any information for truthfulness. But it is also important to understand here, that there are statements that cannot be checked. Such statements are related to the category of opinions or forecasts. Besides, in the frameworks of fact-checking algorithms, a journalist can use a “scale of truthfulness”. A statement can be assessed as truthful, mainly truthful, mainly false or false. The process of the platform’s development has already been launched.

– The project is first of all targeted at project-based learning of students. Students of which study areas are taking part in it?

L.Sh.: First, they are ten master’s degree students of the SUSU Faculty of Journalism. They are going to check validity of political facts during elections to European Parliament in 2019.

Curriculum of master’s degree students of the Faculty of Journalism is going to include a new subject. It is going to be called “Fact Checking and Verification”. Within the new subject, theoretical aspects regarding fact checking are going to be taught. Also, approbation of fact checking tools is going to be carried out on the basis of examples of real statements of European and Russian politicians. We will be systematically preparing master’s degree students for the role of distance observers at the elections to the European Parliament in March of 2019.

The checked and assessed by the “scale of truthfulness” statements are going to be published both at the pan-European platform and at the national portal. Official language of the project is English. Master’s degree students taking part in the project know English at a proper level. The project is also going to include bachelor’s degree students with the knowledge of English language, majoring in Journalism and Advertising.

Second, the project is of inter-institution nature. It also involves student-programmers from the Institute of Natural Science and Mathematics, who are going to take part in development of the media platform.

– How exactly the checking is going to be conducted?

А.К.: The checking is carried out in three stages, including statement analysis, statement resource analysis, and analysis of the fact itself. For example, if an author of a statement refers to some research or operates with figures, we check who is the author of the research, what organisation carried it out and whether the organisation is trustworthy. Also, within the process of checking, it is necessary to involve a second expert.

If it is a scientist, we check his or her competency and the context in which the research was carried out. Anyway, we have to check the source’s source, to which the person who makes the statement is referring to. If we can’t find answers to the questions that bother us, then we more likely are dealing with manipulative behaviour or a fake. During the period of preparation for elections, mass media and social networks are full of political statements – this is an excellent study material for application of techniques and algorithms of fact checking in order to learn detecting manipulation in the use of information. However, SUSU’s EUfactcheck project is first of all of educational nature. We don’t set the goal to convict someone of lying. We need to teach master’s degree student-journalists fundamentals of fact checking and verification, as well as teach them how to operate with the tools. Master’s degree students will be able to apply these skills and abilities during elections to the European Parliament, and publish results of the checking at a real media platform.

– How is the topic of fact checking is going to be covered at the key event of the SUSU Faculty of Journalism – the Science-and-Education Forum called “Communication Leader-2019”?

L.Sh.: During the conference of the European Journalism Training Association in Thessaloniki, we discussed important cooperation issues with EJTA President Nico Drok and received a consent of EJTA representatives from universities of Greece, Belgium and Holland to take part in the Science-and-Education Forum entitled “Communication Leader” which is to be held in March of 2019. Fact checking is going to be the key topic of the conference.

Within the Communication Leader-2019 Forum, online master-classes of teaching staff from universities participating in the project are going to be held. For example, master classes are scheduled to be held by representatives of the Institute of Mass Communication (Stuttgart, Germany), Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences (Finland), and Thomas More University (Belgium). Master classes are going to be targeted at teaching staff of the Faculty of Journalism as well as at bachelor’s and master’s degree students.

Within the Forum, there is a scheduled visit of SUSU by a lecturer from the Aristotle University (Thessaloniki, Greece) Nikos Panagiotou, who is going to hold a master class for students and teaching staff of SUSU and deliver a report dedicated to specificity of fact checking.

– Tell us about your plans regarding the project. What key events are scheduled for the nearest future?

L.Sh.: In January of 2019, we are going to take part in another educational event at the Utrecht University, which is going to signal the beginning of publications of fact checking results within the EUfactcheck project. We are also planning to publish reviews of Russian mass media materials dedicated to elections in Europe, as well as analyse the quality of translation of foreign news and statements of politicians. It is important for us to see the personas and the statements which Russian mass media get focused on. What is more actively implemented into the minds of Russian audience? What events are neglected? What does European mass media publish and why it does not, say, gets covered in our mass media? All of this is important for us specifically from the position of educational process – teaching future journalists carry out fact checking having equipped them with specialised tools.

Yulia Rudneva; photo by Oleg Igoshin, personal collection of the interviewees
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