Fact-checking challenges in cross-border projects

By Vedrana Simicevic.

Fact-checking is not always a straightforward affair, especially not in cross-border teams. Here, alumni from the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s Reporters in the Field programme discuss their experiences and provide tips on how to improve fact-checking in international teams.

Difficulties of obtaining and checking particular data in different countries

*“We reported on dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia and talks behind closed doors. But it was impossible from Kosovo to ask for access to official documents in Serbia, and they don’t offer access for local journalists either. This was one of our main obstacles, as we wanted to shed light on the issue of partition and exchange of territories. In the end, our team found alternative sources of information.”

This situation is not unusual. During your assignment, you may encounter that it is much more difficult to get particular information in one country than in another. This could be frustrating for some team members who must put more effort into fact-checking the reliability of difficult-to-obtain data. It can also affect the decisions on how to present the data in the final articles.

Team members can have different views on the fact-checking process or different levels of “trust” in data.

“While working on a cross-border story that touched upon a territorial dispute between two countries, I noticed inconsistencies in official data sets from one country. The data provided differed from that of some experts and alternative sources. I felt that we needed to dig deeper into the issue and treat the official data from both sides carefully, acknowledging more objective sources. But my colleague didn’t have the same level of reservation and published the data as fact, without referring to the source. I think that we simply didn’t discuss every important aspect of the story and maybe I failed to emphasize my doubts.”

As the example above illustrates, challenges concerning fact-checking can arise when there is a lack of assertive communication between team-members. Differences in attitude or practise regarding fact-checking become even clearer in cross-border situations: you don’t live in the same country as your team members, and you don’t work together on a regular basis. Acknowledging these differences and discussing a shared process for fact-checking, as well as establishing guidelines from the very beginning, is a helpful way to avoid such problems.

Cultural differences might affect the fact-checking process

Although cultural differences can affect every part of cross-border collaboration, in terms of fact-checking, this is most often represented by language barriers. Team members often get material from their colleagues that has been translated into a “third” language (usually English) and some details might be “lost in translation.” This problem increases if you try to obtain information from a country where you don’t have a team member present, meaning you will have to rely on local fixers or translators, or you will try to find and fact-check information by yourself.

Besides the language problem, be aware that fact-checking can mean different things in different countries.
“Certainly there are differences in attitude towards fact-checking. Some of these will be related to development e.g. the level of technology and equipment available. Others can be cultural, for example different expectations regarding the right to privacy. And of course laws on such things can vary across jurisdictions. It could also depend on attitudes toward authority”—Eoghan Sweeney, open-source investigation specialist

Tips for how to overcome fact-checking challenges:

  • Set common guidelines and definitions: The best solution to the problems mentioned above is to set common guidelines and definitions before approaching the fact-checking process. Discuss the most important and most sensitive data together, talk about your sources of information, how you obtained them, and how you will combine and fact-check the data in your project.
  • Identify possible challenges and “unknowns:” Through wide-ranging discussions, try to identify all the “unknowns” that you might stumble across and map out how you might tackle them in advance.
  • Don’t be afraid to fact-check each other: Cross-border collaborations need a great deal of trust, but that doesn’t mean that team members can’t discuss or question each other’s information and conclusions. If you have doubts, mention them to your team-mates as soon as you can. If you feel the need to double-check information from your colleagues, be sure to mention it to them and explain your reasons. Trust is key in collaborative projects.
  • Be extremely precise with translations: When you are translating important documents/data/quotes for your colleagues, try to be extremely precise even if that means more effort and time. Sometimes every word counts, especially in the process of fact-checking.
  • Make a Plan B: If you know that it will be more difficult to obtain and verify information in one of the countries in your cross-border investigation, try as a team to come up with a strategy for how to solve this problem in advance. Consider that this will possibly take more effort and money and try to think about what you will do if you end up missing some data.

“You need to establish some ground rules that everybody agrees on, so when you do end up with something contentious, at least you have a framework. From the start you need to agree on stuff like “do we always look for primary sources”, or “what happens when we have disagreements on the authenticity of something”, “do we have somebody to arbitrate”, and so on. Anticipating disagreements is key to solving them”—Eoghan Sweeney, open-source investigation specialist

About The Author

Vedrana Simicevic

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