20 October 2009

Got your facts right? The student blog that says otherwise

Journalists across Europe may start dreading answering their telephones lest it be one of a group that Columbia Journalism Review’s Craig Silverman has dubbed the “Tilburg Checkers”.

It’s a new initiative from the Tilburg School of Journalism in the Netherlands where fourth-year journalism students participate in three-week long fact checking programmes, the results of which they publish on a daily blog.

Each morning, the students gather in a room to review the day’s news and identify stories that seem questionable. Then they go to work, hitting the phones and other sources to pull suspicious stories apart and see if they hold up to scrutiny and then, having spoken to the journalist in question, publish online.

According to the programme instructor, Dutch journalist Theo Dersjant, as of today, roughly 80 percent of the stories checked have contained some form of factual mistake.

He also describes how, whilst some journalists are happy to co-operate, others have refused to take their calls anymore, stating that they only have an obligation to their readers (which, Silverman points out, suggests they do not feel obliged to provide accurate stories to their readers).

Whilst the students’ work is largely within mainland Europe, (and the blog itself is in Dutch) Dersjant is hoping that other j-schools across the globe will repeat this format, not only to teach students about accuracy, but to keep local media under check.

So tread carefully next time you wish to report on the latest opinion poll, or science item. The students did such a good job of revealing the bogus data behind some of these “news” items that Dutch news agency ANP has stopped publishing them.

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