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No fat cheque for factcheck

Journal.ie’s fact-checker Dan Mac Guill keeps focus narrow and gets wide-ranging respect

In 2015, I moved to New York City from Dublin and passed much of the year paying maniacal attention to American news media. I fixated on a wide range of output, people, processes, and interaction between journalists. One difference was more immediately apparent to me than others.

The arc bending towards justice as facilitated by journalism seemed to be shorter in the US. Resignations precipitated by good and revelatory work actually happened, normally promptly, and acknowledgment of fault or duplicity tended to be forthcoming and formal from both the public and private sectors.

An express, media-wide obsession with validity and accuracy was new to me. The opaque crosstalk and untruths of the 2016 presidential race added immensely to the regular burden on US reporters, editors, and fact-checkers, who collectively upped their game in response. Fact-checker was not a designation I had encountered at home. Did it exist there? Does it exist in a different guise?

Dan Mac Guill

It exists, as it happens, in the form of an Irish reporter with TheJournal.ie, Dan Mac Guill. Mac Guill has been running FactCheck, a dedicated fact-checking vertical at the website, since February 2016.

In the last six months, as mounting anxiety with regard to truth and veracity addles the world at large, Mac Guill’s work in Ireland has come into sharper focus. Not before time.

The 2016 general election brought about the introduction of The Journal’s fact-checking service, for reasons broadly similar to those outlined above. It was the idea of website editor Susan Daly.

Daly said that, faced with “weeks of campaign hyperbole, PR stunts and political fisticuffs”, there was a need decisively, under one banner, to interrogate the integrity of what was being declared.

“From the perspective of the newsroom, it was invigorating to set the agenda, rather than have to slavishly follow the campaign trail alone, reacting to every latest ‘he said/she said’ sideshow”, Daly said.

Election promises were obvious fodder for FactCheck, but the potential for debunking other claims made in radio debates, television appearances, and election literature rapidly became clear. Mac Guill and his colleagues admired prominent overseas fact-checking operations like Politfact, Factcheck.org, and the work of Libération and the ‘Les Décodeurs’ section at at Le Monde, which, together, provided a guiding precedent.

Heartened by the reader response to his contribution during the campaign, Mac Guill persisted with the mission, and Daly made a decision to give the project a permanent footing. The organisation has since become party to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles.

Mac Guill, who started at The Journal in 2014, has been working remotely since the beginning of 2015. He is exceptionally remote — based outside Washington DC — but, in step with staffers of most modern newsrooms, spends compensatory amounts of time in conversation with his colleagues online. He publishes between two and three stories through Factcheck each week.

In a year, more than 160 claims were fact-checked by the service, covering everything from reported side effects of the HPV vaccine, to the size of the gender pay-gap, to deaths allegedly caused by air pollution, to whether Trump can be legally banned from Ireland, to the quantity of detox beds in the country, to whether “Irish slaves” built the White House.

Mac Guill busies himself with high-profile claims made in established settings. Readers’ tips account for more than a third of claims checked. The 6.1 News and Tonight with Vincent Browne also tend to be bountiful sources.

A preponderance of Mac Guill’s day is spent consuming Irish news, but regional reporting can evade him, and readers have gamely picked up that slack. What else qualifies? There are no hard and fast rules to follow, but a quibble with a friend in a pub isn’t going to be looked into, Mac Guill said, and he doesn’t really have the time to take on rumours.

In recent months, Mac Guill has noticed a marked increase in interest in the project. Increased preoccupation with ideas like “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth”, issuing forth from the Trump administration, predominantly, has led to greater scrutiny of news media everywhere.

“Interest in Ireland is intensifying”, he said, “even if consumers of news aren’t coming into contact with the emergence of that [fake news] specifically”. Fake news, rather than being a useful label, has been abused to the point of obsolescence, according to Mac Guill, who works off the following definition: “provocation of disgust and biases with online virality as an aim, and advertising revenue as a final goal”.

And it is true that, in Ireland, nothing falls squarely into the category of the now-infamous Denver Post, or other fictional outlets that publish made-up stories, or Facebook accounts propagating seductive or inflammatory myths. Were there, they might not manage the same mileage in Ireland, in Mac Guill’s view. He has said he believes Irish consumers of news to be “highly informed, scrupulous, skeptical, and keen”.

On an overcast day in October of last year, Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, waited until the Ceann Comhairle had quietened a number of rowdy opponents in the Dáíl chamber before continuing.
“What I’ve said is that jobseeker’s [payment] rates for young people in Northern Ireland are much lower than they are in the Republic of Ireland”, said Varadkar, keeping his customary cool. “Deputy Brady has said that’s untrue. I would welcome someone to do a fact check on that — perhaps on TheJournal.ie — and we’ll see how that comes out”.

While unusual, particularly because the request pertained to his own assertion, it is something of a testament to Mac Guill’s public service that it took just eight months for FactCheck to be deemed serious and credible enough by a government minister to raise during a parliamentary debate. Of course, Varadkar’s claim was true.

I asked Mac Guill whether the extension of the remit to cover other indiscretions —such as bias, error, or plagiarism —  would be a logical progression, or was tempting to him in any way. Cordially and professionally, he said no.

“I want to emphasis that the aim is definitely not to show people up or call people out, or anything like that”, he said. “And quite a lot of claims are true, or mostly true”.

FactCheck is an admirably sober and straight operation. Its headlines are in the format of the question, always, rather than the answer. The closest Mac Guill came to criticism during our conversation was to demurely suggest that when it came to journalists’ grilling those in positions of power some were “better at their jobs than others”. FactCheck, he said, isn’t supposed to be an all-purpose media watchdog, nor does it have any ambition to become one.

Daly, for her part, said that such an extension could be so significant as to require the commitment of a whole organisation. “There is some value in us keeping the FactCheck mission to a narrow focus as it makes it easier for us to make quick decisions on what is in our wheelhouse and turn those around quickly so as to get the right information out there quickly”, she said.

“Money and headspace no object, it would be amazing to widen the remit but it’s a labour-intensive and expensive business that we can ill-afford. It’s a brave sponsor who wants to be seen to support such serious work”, she said, adding that “it would have to be a very hands-off and appropriate sponsor, in itself a challenging ask”.

The focus is singular, and Mac Guill continues to shut out the noise and ask: is it accurate? To what extent? How do we know it’s accurate? “It seems to be in the air that nothing can be known for certain”, Mac Guill said. “That makes me even more determined to outline to our readers: it can”.


By Siobhán Brett

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