AFP's Free Fact-checking Course with Gaëlle Faure

AFP's Free Fact-checking Course with Gaëlle Faure

We speak to Gaëlle Faure about her work building the Agence France-Presse fact-checking course.
November 27, 2021

Gaëlle Faure is a Digital Verification Editor at Agence France-Presse. She previously worked as Associate Editor at the Global Investigative Journalism Network and before that as a journalist and editor at France 24 Observers. In her current role at AFP, she has helped build a free fact-checking course that journalists can take at their own pace. We asked her some questions over email about her work and her recommendations for journalists interested in improving their fact-checking skills.

In Old News: What does a Digital Verification Editor’s day look like?

Gaëlle: At AFP, we’ve got more than a hundred digital verification journalists working at the agency’s bureaus around the world. I primarily work with our Africa team, and do some training as well. On a typical day, I’ll evaluate pitches sent in by reporters, looking at criteria like how widespread the false claim is, its potential for causing harm, and whether the proof we use to debunk it is air-tight. We’ll often discuss the proof in detail to see if we can dig deeper. Then I’ll edit multiple drafts as they come in. These can range from simple stories about images of news events shared out of context to deep dives into health claims, for example.

In Old News: How does it differ from previous roles you’ve had?

Gaëlle: I’ve worked in a number of editing and reporting roles in different newsrooms, but the one I spent the longest in — and where I first developed fact-checking skills — was as a reporter and editor for France 24’s Observers program. We worked with citizen journalists, and we verified user-generated content from around the world. I learned to scour the internet for photos or videos showing news events and check whether they were legitimate or not. So I was mainly working on verifying content that was true, in order to report on events that really did occur, but this inevitably also led to debunking false claims, since we came across plenty of images shared under false pretenses. Verification skills are useful to journalists in both scenarios — whether you’re verifying what’s true or debunking what isn’t.

In Old News: You’re in a course on fact-checking for AFP. Who are the intended audience and what were the key points you wanted to cover?

Gaëlle: The course is aimed at journalists all over the world. And not necessarily those dedicated to fact-checking; these skills can be useful to any journalist in any role. Actually, many people who are not journalists have told me that these videos have helped them sort through what’s real and isn’t on social media, so I think they can be useful to anyone with an appetite for truth. The course covers the basic tools and techniques used by digital verification journalists: notably, how to verify images using reverse search engines, metadata, and geolocation; how to use online archives; and some advanced search skills. We also look at how to investigate health claims and give some tips on how to write effective fact-checks.

In Old News: Any advice for how interested newsrooms can use the course? Watch it in one go? Or take it step-by-step?

Gaëlle: I highly recommend taking it step by step. There’s a lot of information packed into this course, so if you watch it in one go, you probably won’t retain it all. We’ve interspersed many of the chapters with exercises, and I think the course will be vastly more effective if you actually pause to do the exercises rather than if you just watch the explanations. I would especially stress this with the geolocation exercises, which ramp up in difficulty as you go on. There’s no secret with geolocation — you can only become good at it by actually doing it. But geolocation is also the most fun part! Whenever I teach fact-checking workshops, this is the part that students can’t get enough of.

In Old News: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see journalists make when it comes to fact-checking?

Gaëlle: Unfortunately, we’ve seen some news outlets publish images that they didn’t take the time to verify. For example, say there’s a volcanic eruption, and a journalist finds an image supposedly showing this eruption shared by someone on Twitter. But this image might actually be from an older eruption, or from an altogether different volcano. This is also very frequent in conflict situations, where online users in one country sometimes share gruesome scenes that they claim were taken locally, but were actually from a different conflict in another country. Journalists should also be wary that it’s not because someone prominent — even someone with a blue tick — shares an image that it’s necessarily true. They could have been tricked, too.

In Old News: What are some of the biggest near-future challenges for fact-checking newsrooms and their journalists?

Gaëlle: A major challenge that we’re already facing — but that is only going to grow — is how to scale up in order to tackle a bigger chunk of the vast amount of misinformation spreading online. Does that mean training more journalists to focus on fact-checking? Or should all journalists do some verification as part of their jobs? Or more partnerships across news organisations, so that we better divide up the work? More effective partnerships with social media platforms? More sophisticated tools to help us identify and verify claims? I don’t know. Probably all of this, and more. Fact-checking in the modern sense of the term, as pertains to misinformation, has only really taken off in the last four or five years; we’ve come a long way in a short time, but there’s so much left to improve and invent.

In Old News: Do you expect to see developments in fact-checking story formats? What would that look like?

Gaëlle: Most fact-checking newsrooms produce online articles or videos, but I’ve noticed an increasing number of projects in audio as well as in shorter social media formats, like WhatsApp bulletins or Instagram Stories. I think formats will evolve to meet audiences wherever misinformation spreads — so today it might be on TikTok, tomorrow it might be on some new brand platform. Of course, the challenge with short formats is to boil down often-complicated demonstrations of proof without losing too much nuance along the way.

In Old News: How can journalists integrate fact-checking into their storytelling?

Gaëlle: I think more newsrooms could encourage their journalists to write debunks of viral, harmful misinformation that’s spreading in their communities — even if they don’t have a dedicated fact-checking unit. Traditional journalists might at first shy away from writing about misinformation because they are trained to report on things that are true, things that are happening in the physical world. But misinformation is a real phenomenon, one that can affect your community in real ways, whether it’s by convincing people to take unproven remedies for serious health problems, or by stoking hatred and even physical violence between different groups.

Digital verification skills can also be very useful for journalists working on investigative stories, for example by helping them ferret out information online about certain people or organizations, or by using geolocation to investigate instances of violence caught on video, for example.

In Old News: Is fact-checking a useful tool for cultivating audience trust? If so, how?

Gaëlle: I think it is, because with fact-checking, you have to be very transparent. We avoid anonymous sources in debunks. And to prove that something is false or misleading, you have to lay out your proof. We don’t just say “this is false because we say so”, we say “this is false because we found XYZ by carrying out the following steps.” This allows audiences to see exactly how we work. If they want, they can then reproduce our work using the same techniques, since the vast majority of the tools we use are free and open to the public. In our articles, when we mention tools like reverse image search engines or InVID-WeVerify, we link to explainers so that readers can learn to use these tools themselves.

In Old News: How do you avoid alienating audiences who may have believed false claims that you’re covering?

Gaëlle: Everyone has fallen for a false claim at one point or another in their lives, especially when it confirms their own biases, so it’s best to approach this work with a fair amount of humility. I think the key to avoid alienating your audience is to present the facts dispassionately and leave any opinion out of it. This is not the time for flowery language or a sarcastic tone. Even if you might feel that a claim is totally ridiculous, you’ll want to avoid using judgmental words like “of course” or “obviously”, or even saying that someone was “fooled”.

In Old News: You’ve talked about adding context in a fact-check story. What value does context add to these types of reports?

Gaëlle: I think it’s important to include context so that audiences understand not just why an individual claim is false, but also who is involved, why it might be spreading, and what wider narratives it might be fueling. For example, if we see a piece of misinformation shared by an anti-vaxxer who we’ve fact-checked before, we’ll add a paragraph or two explaining the person’s background — maybe they’re part of a prominent network —, how wide their online audience is, and which other false claims they’ve shared in the past.

In Old News: If you’re speaking to someone on a news desk at a very busy news site who has a lot of pressure to churn out copy. Do you have any advice on making decisions about speed vs. accuracy?

Gaëlle: Familiarize yourself with fact-checking basics — it can save you from embarrassing mistakes in breaking news situations. Sometimes, it really only takes a minute or two. For example, never take for granted that the caption of an image shared on social media is correct. If you have time to carry out verification checks on the image, great; doing a reverse image search may reveal that the image is an old one in a matter of seconds. But if you don’t have the time, then it’s better not to use the image at all than to risk using it out of context.

Also, make sure that the social media account of a prominent person is indeed their legitimate account before quoting them. Some imposter accounts are very well done — but others are quick to spot, for example if they were created very recently or have changed names. Same goes for the social media accounts of organizations: take that extra couple minutes to go to their website (double check that URL, too!) and then click on their social media icons to go to the correct accounts.

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