Watching the Watchmen: Corrections

Not long after the International Fact-Checking Network committed to policing whether signatories to its code of principles were following that code, we observed that the means the IFCN chose to ensure compliance with its code set a low bar for fact-checking organizations.

That bar was especially low for organizations’ policies for “open and honest” corrections:

How does one verify scrupulous compliance with an corrections policy? The current IFCN system asks the applicant to provide a link to its corrections policy and offer one or two examples of recent corrections. We noted in our correspondence with Mantzarlis that any unscrupulous fact checker could likely achieve that standard of compliance. As such, the IFCN’s list of “verified” signatories tells readers virtually nothing about whether organizations on the list follow their policies scrupulously. It mainly tells readers that an organization posts its policy where people can find it.

What has changed since May 2017?

The IFCN tweaked its system in early 2018 by allowing observers to submit complaints to the IFCN, which it would then pass on to the independent assessor in charge of reviewing the applicant.

We submitted two examples of a fact-checking organization (PolitiFact) failing to fix false reporting. The assessor, Michael Wagner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote that the complaints we lodged deserved a response, though he mischaracterized them as “disagreements about the editorial judgment PolitiFact made in rendering Truth-O-Meter ratings.”

Wagner went on to assess PolitiFact as “Fully Compliant” with the IFCN standard for open and honest corrections.

We have continued to press the IFCN to adopt policies on corrections that at least have firm gums if not some rudimentary teeth. Later in 2018 it rolled out a revised verification process along with a review (which deserves praise) of its first year’s effort at verifying signatories.

While the wording for the IFCN policy on open and honest corrections has not changed, the IFCN has provided new guidance to organizations and assessors for judging compliance. And it introduced a new form for filing complaints.

The IFCN Complaint Form

We suspect that we serve as the primary testers of the beta version (our term) of the IFCN complaint form.

The form asks the observer to name the organization and the part of the code that organization has violated. We found the instructions somewhat vague after that. The form says “Provide evidence of the potential violations.” The user is unable to type in the provided space, but the space has a “Browse” button to the right. With that button serving as the only option the user is sure to click it, triggering the next clue on how to proceed.

Clicking the button prompts the opening of a file upload window. Which files should the user upload? When we first tried it the window asked for image files by default. The IFCN has since changed the default to allow other types of files.

We asked IFCN Program Manager Dulce Ramos for guidance about what type of file upload would work best for the IFCN and its assessors. We settled on a PDF file with embedded links, which one might supplement with separate image files if necessary.

The form also offers users the option of saying whether they notified the fact-checking organization about their complaint. That option failed early testing but now appears to work.

Areas For Improvement

The basic idea of having a complaint submission form is fine. We like the idea.

In practice, though, we find the present system unsatisfactory.

First, it offers users no acknowledgment that a complaint was successfully lodged. Clicking the “Submit” form refreshes the page. The user receives no browser message and no email message to verify receipt of the complaint.

Second, it offers users no apparent means of tracking a complaint. Presumably nobody outside of the IFCN would know how many complaints were lodged and by whom unless the independent assessment published months or weeks later includes that information.

In keeping with our advocacy for extreme transparency, we say the IFCN should keep a public record of the complaints.

The IFCN maintains reservations about extreme transparency. As a compromise measure we suggest listing complaints by source and topic. This listing will help assure users that the IFCN forwarded their specific complaints to the independent assessor(s).

Assessment

The IFCN has improved the verification process by creating a process for collecting complaints for review by an independent assessor. If the IFCN adopts transparent implementation of the policy we may in the future have the means for judging its effectiveness.

It’s worth noting the example we have from early 2018, mentioned above. An assessor reviewed two complaints he judged the organization should have addressed. That organization to date has not addressed the concerns even months after the assessment was published. That example speaks to an ineffective means of keeping fact-checking organizations accountable.

We look forward to improved accountability in 2019.

Thanks

We thank the IFCN staff, Director Alexios Mantzarlis, Program Manager Dulce Ramos and Fact-checking Reporter Daniel Funke, for consistently taking the time to read and respond to our messages. And we especially thank them for making changes over time that likely improve the IFCN’s ability to encourage best practices.

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