South Africa’s Sowetan newspaper reported in March that 28 percent of girls in the country's schools test positive for HIV. The South African Press Association soon picked up the startling data, reporting, “Nearly a third of schoolgirls have HIV.” Before long, the story appeared in publications worldwide, from the UK’s The Independent to Qatar-based Al Jazeera.
But did the newspaper have its facts straight?
As the story spread, investigative journalist and author Julian Rademeyer, who leads fact-checking investigations at South Africa's Africa Check website, sought to confirm the shocking statistic. And research revealed that the minister of health quoted in the Sowetan had referred to a “small sample of a few schools in the Natal Midlands” when he spoke of 28 percent. The true national rate, Africa Check found, was 12.7 percent.
The site checks “simple things,” the facts that are increasingly rewritten and spread from news outlet to news outlet due to today's real-time news cycle and diminished newsgathering staffs, Rademeyer told the website Journalism.co.za.
“There's been a decline in the number of specialist reporters at newspapers and newsrooms are smaller and you've got many people wearing many different hats producing quite a number of stories on deadline,” he said.
Africa Check is one of 20 winners of the 2012 African News Innovation Challenge contest (ANIC), designed to encourage experimentation in digital technologies and support the best innovations designed to strengthen African news organizations. The contest, modeled on the Knight News Challenge, was launched by the African Media Initiative under the leadership of ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein.
“Africa’s media face some serious challenges, and each of our winners tries to solve a real-world problem that journalists are grappling with. This includes the public’s growing concern about the manipulation and accuracy of online content, plus concerns around the security of communications and of whistleblowers or journalistic sources,” Arenstein said when announcing the winners.
Africa Check is funded by donations, with additional support from the AFP Foundation and the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.
Africa Check, which launched in September, examines the public claims of politicians, leaders in civil society, government agencies and journalists. The site checks the facts against evidence drawn from readers, public sources, online tools and experts, then publishes the findings.
Via its website, Twitter and Facebook, Africa Check calls upon the public to help investigate facts by “providing evidence that supports or undermines a claim being investigated, such as an eye witness statement, a link to a website, a photo, a video, a document or the name of an expert.” It plans to hire a researcher and has a small budget to pay for freelance work. Eventually, the site plans to expand across the continent.
To help journalists improve their own fact-checking skills, the site provides tips for fact checking and a list of online resources. It also gives suggestions for those interested in contacting the media with a complaint.
Jessica Weiss, a former IJNet managing editor, is a Buenos Aires-based writer.
Global media innovation content related to the projects and partners of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellows on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.
Image: screen grab of Africa Check logo