It has been an incredible year for me as a PesaCheck fellow, working with the best minds in civic tech, open data and policy in Kenya to keep our media and politicians accountable. PesaCheck is Kenya’s first fact-checking initiative, with a sister chapter now operating in Tanzania. Now more than ever, with focus fixed on “fake news” and the spread of misinformation, individuals and intermediary organizations need to cultivate a culture of fact-checking.
However, this article will however not belabor the critical need for fact-checking — my colleagues have done a good job of that. Rather, I will offer reflections on key lessons I have learned working as a PesaCheck fellow, which I hope will be helpful to anyone interested in running a similar initiative.
Source and collect data from credible sources.
This is the most obvious lesson to share but I think it requires emphasis. It is imperative to use credible sources. The most embarrassing thing for a publication that aims to set the record straight is to become a source of misinformation.
This means that when fact-checking, you need to use official documentation as much as possible or cite individuals who can comment on your analysis in an official capacity. I would advise avoid using other media articles to fact-check claims, as these are not primary sources. Facts reported in media articles may be prone to distortions or inaccuracies due to the bias of the writer or editor.
When it comes to fact-checking public finance stories, budget documents should be your primary (but not your only) source. In Kenya, we are lucky to have e-government initiatives where we can find additional information about budgets on local ministry websites, the national bureau of statistics, the Kenya Open Data Initiative, research institutions and international organizations. When trying to fact-check a claim, I’ll generally consult my sources in that order.
If these are not sufficient, I turn to Code for Kenya and the International Budget Partnership -Kenya, and I will ask them to reach out to their networks with a formal request for data that can help clarify whatever claim I’m fact-checking.
Overall, one of my biggest challenges has been running fact-checks on stories about Kenyan county budgets, as not all counties have made their budget documents publically available. That doesn’t mean I don’t find inconsistencies or contradictions in national budget documents. That’s why it’s important to note any inconsistencies as part of your fact-check.
Be objective and fair.
This is another point that cannot be overstated. It is imperative for a fact-checking initiative to remain objective (among the other standard principles exercised by fact-checking initiatives worldwide). Don’t insert anything that could be interpreted as opinion. I usually stick to the following format to establish and then check a claim: “So and so said this; this is why it is FALSE/TRUE.”
There is no such thing as an easy fact-check.
Especially when it comes to public finance stories, sometimes there’ll be instances where the numbers are obviously wrong, but given the complexity of budget issues, it will be crucial to provide context. The challenge will be presenting this context in a way that’s not too technical, but doesn’t gloss over the complexity.
One problem I’ve seen with media reporting on budget issues is that the numbers will be correct, but the analysis provided by the reporter will go off on an unrelated tangent, rather than providing information that’s crucial to the story. For example, I fact-checked an article that analyzed how a county government allocated funds to hospitality, then proceeded to state that this money would have been better used to build ICU units in local hospitals. What the reporter failed to mention is that the county had actually allocated an amount in their budget to build the same ICU units.
You need to be very familiar with your beat in order to identify then provide such missing context. The more you know your subject area, the better equipped you are to decide whether you need to dig deeper. As a PesaCheck fellow, I actually spent most of my time doing research needed to provide extra context, rather than identifying statistics that were flat-out wrong.
You may also come across media articles that conflate several false claims. To fact-check these, one needs to be tactful. A good approach I use is to lay the claims one by one, then fact-check each one separately and distinctly.
Simplify but do not misinform.
Budgets are quite complex to analyze. However, given that PesaCheck aims to have mass impact, it is important to write up your fact-check in layman’s terms as opposed to providing an extremely technical analysis. Nevertheless, be wary of providing inappropriate examples or false comparisons in an attempt to make the piece more accessible (for example, stating that funds X or Y could have been used to build a road or a school instead).
You may think that fact-checking public finance issues is too difficult for a math-wary reporter. Indeed, it is not very straightforward but over time, it gets easier to do as one becomes better acquainted with budget data and resources. Editorial meetings, help with identifying which claims were the most important ones to be fact-checked, and access to an extensive network of sources all made my fact-checking work much easier to do, given the part-time nature of the fellowship.
After my PesaCheck fellowship, I’m ready to continue scrutinizing the claims that authorities make, and to remain critical of media reporting. Not only that, I have also gone through a crash course in civics, especially when it comes to Kenya’s government budgets and the robust legal framework that’s meant to guide our country’s public finance management. Kenya may be going through growing pains, but I believe that in part thanks to the political will urging for more open government, we have a solid foundation to build up more active citizen participation in budget decisions. Fact-checking initiatives such as PesaCheck are critical in fostering such participation. I am proud to have contributed to Kenya’s first budget fact-checking initiative.
This post originally ran on PesaCheck and was edited and republished with permission. PesaCheck was co-founded by Catherine Gicheru, a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for Kenya. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.