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Newsmakers: Fact-checking in Australia with Holly Nott

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From claims about government spending to activists interfering with cattle trucks, the Australian Associated Press, or AAP for short, fact-checks all types of stories. As Australia’s national news agency, AAP generates stories and images for an expanding group of Australian publishers. They also work with a network of partner agencies to provide comprehensive global news, complemented by the work of its own staff in New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Managing Editor Holly Nott is central to planning and executing coverage of major events, including the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. Late last year, with state-level and national elections on the horizon, Holly and her team sought to bring fact checking to the AAP landscape, with the support of Google News Initiative. That work later allowed AAP’s fact-checking to become a permanent part of the Australian media landscape.

In the latest Newsmakers interview, Holly shares her story about how she became a journalist and how her team works to verify stories, share lessons for the industry and collaborate with Australian newsrooms.  

How did you first get started in journalism? 

My older brother was the first person in our family to go to college, and he forged the path into journalism that I ended up following. During high school, I spent two weeks at one of the newspapers where he'd worked, and I absolutely loved it. As a kid from a country town that was barely on the map, I saw journalism as the gateway to a big, exciting, interesting life. My mother founded and edited our little community newspaper, so she had already shown me the positive impact journalism could have. It was a natural progression for me to finish school, complete a journalism degree and then get my first job at a regional daily newspaper. 

Break this down for the non-experts: How does your team go about fact-checking a claim?

The AAP FactCheck team begins each day by scouring traditional and social media looking for claims that don't ring true. For traditional media we have a strict set of criteria to meet when it comes to claim selection. We only check claims made in direct speech attributed to influential people. For social media content, we are looking for any questionable subject matter that is relevant to our Australian audience, but there must be a benefit for them in proving it to be correct or incorrect. We assess what elements of the claim need to be verified, brainstorm the sources we can use and then begin the research. Once we have the information, we write an evidence-led draft and suggest a verdict. The team discusses the verdict and it is either endorsed or revisited before the copy is sub-edited and published.

AAP began fact-checking ahead of an election. How is fact-checking different during an election cycle?

During the election period, we needed to be as responsive to the news cycle as possible if we wanted to be relevant. We had a one-day turn-around time for our fact-checks - which set us apart from other fact-checking models at that time. Several months down the line, the new government has settled in and we have dialed back the pace of our fact-checking so we can  expand our scope into social media content.

What distinguishes fact-checking as a form of reporting from traditional reporting?

The demands of the news cycle mean there often isn't time for us to take a deep dive into an issue unless it is at the top of our list of priorities. Fact-checking gives us permission to do just that. We often have to get right into the minutiae of an issue, and then dig around in that space for a while. When we are writing, we just go where the evidence leads us and we only produce content based on the facts. It is a very pure form of journalism.

How does the AAP balance new technology with journalistic standards? 

Our company is great at change and our structure helps us get new ideas up and running quickly - but all innovation should strengthen our commitment to the fundamental principles of journalism. For example, we believe in accuracy and balance, and AAP FactCheck allows us to reinforce that message in a new way. We also believe journalism can be an incredibly positive force. To explore this idea, a senior staff member has started a five-month study of the emerging concept of constructive journalism, which emphasizes solution-focused news. AAP Deputy Editor Joanne Williamson is currently a fellow at the Constructive Institute in Denmark, working to understand how we can counter the negativity bias and reactive nature of much news reporting and help our clients re-engage with their audiences in a more positive way.

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