Meet the Tilburg Checkers

Dutch journalism students help keep local media in check

If all goes as planned, sometime today a journalism student in Tilburg, Netherlands will walk into the offices of de Volkskrant, a large Dutch newspaper, and deliver a pie to a reporter. This is not the result of a journalist-on-journalist crush, nor is it a bribe aimed at landing a job. It’s an apology pie, and it’s part of a remarkable program being run by the Tilburg School of Journalism.

Starting last fall, the school, part of Fontys University of Applied Sciences, has recruited fourth-year journalism students to participate in three-week long fact checking programs. 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. As of today, roughly 80 percent of the stories checked have contained some form of factual mistake, according to instructor and Dutch journalist Theo Dersjant. Their findings are published on a blog. Now, the people behind this program are hoping other journalism programs around the world will use the model to teach students about the importance of accuracy, and help keep local media in check.

This is a surprising outcome given that Dersjant admits he wasn’t fond of the idea when it was first proposed by Monique Hamers, a professor who teaches mass communication. (Dutch journalist Carl Mureau also helps run the checking program.)

“There’s a discussion going on in journalism and in media in general about the feeling that journalists are making more and more mistakes, and that we don’t have as much time as we used to have to do the work,” he told me yesterday by phone. “My first reaction to the idea was ‘let’s not do that’ because fact checking as a profession is slowly disappearing from our environment. Journalism organizations are cutting down on staff and some of the first employees to leave the building are fact checkers.” (I addressed a similar issue in last week’s column.)

Once the program was up and running, Dersjant said he and the other two instructors “fell off our chairs in astonishment that there was so much wrong information in media.”

Now the fact checking program is enough of a success that the school has made it a mandatory class for every journalism student in their final year of study. As for the journalists being put in the crosshairs, Dersjant said some have been very receptive to students calling up to point out mistakes, while others have been less than enthused.

“One golden rule we have as fact checkers is that we never publish a fact checking mission unless we have talked to the journalist [responsible for the original report],” Dersjant said. “At first, the journalists said what we are doing is a good idea. But soon the free newspapers and a press agency started getting a bit bored with us because we called them each and every week with more stories that are inaccurate. A lot of media cooperate with us, but one free paper said they will not talk to us anymore because they don’t think they have any obligation to us, only to their readers.”

Which I guess means they don’t have an obligation to provide correct information to readers…

The national Dutch news agency, ANP, received so many phone calls from the students that it eventually changed the way it reports on public opinion polls and research commissioned by companies. As in North America, Dersjant said companies constantly issue releases trumpeting findings from polls and studies in order to get their brand name in the news. The students did such a good job of revealing the bogus data behind these “news” items that ANP has stopped churning out this type of story.

“Our national press agency always published this research, and we showed them that it was nonsense,” Dersjant said.

Now ANP has asked if a group of student checkers can spend one week checking all of its articles in order to get a handle on the frequency and nature of its errors. “We will do the same thing for a regional newspaper,” Dersjant said.

The Tilburg Checkers (my name, not theirs) are even becoming known outside of Dutch journalism circles. Dersjant is heading to Germany soon to help set up a similar program there, and a Dutch book publisher recently asked the group to check for factual errors in all of the reviews of a particular book.
“We did it a few weeks ago… and of the fifteen longer reviews only three [didn’t have factual errors],” he said. “Four of them had really big problems.”

Dersjant said the group’s findings show that the press’s protestations about valuing accuracy and corrections don’t match their output. He also suggests that creating an internal fact checking system would be much easier than many organizations think.

“Journalists keep saying that they don’t have as much time to work on stories as they used to, which is true,” he said. “But at the same time, within a couple of minutes, you can point out the stories that are probably inaccurate. If we can do it, so too can the journalists. You don’t have to check all of the stories every day—but you have to have a nose to smell what could be inaccurate.”

The students have only three weeks to learn how to check and start identifying which stories seem suspect. Yet Dersjant said they have no problem developing first-rate bullshit detectors.

“Students develop the nose quite quickly, and after two weeks they get bored because it’s so easy [to find inaccurate articles],” Dersjant said. “Now we’re trying to give our students more complicated things to do, like take an issue of a magazine and turn it upside down and see what’s wrong.”

Of course, even fact checkers make mistakes, which brings me back to the pie in the newsroom. Dersjant said one of the most common types of error is a misspelled name. (This is backed up by over seven decades of accuracy research in the U.S.) As a result, they decided that any student who misspelled a proper name in a fact checking report would have to hand-deliver a pie to the offended party. Today’s scheduled delivery is because a student recently misspelled the name of a journalist at de Volkskrant.

“I have a theory: if you told journalists that if they write a name wrong it gives me the right to cut off one of their fingers, then no journalist would make any of these mistakes,” Dersjant said. “But there is no punishment, there’s not enough danger, so we have to create some.”

I think the humble pie is a good start—these students have some pretty valuable fingers.

Correction of the Week

“A reply to a question in Notes & Queries yesterday recommended purchasing lion and tiger urine from Chester Zoo to stop neighbourhood cats from urinating in a vegetable patch (G2, page 17). Chester Zoo would like to forestall requests for its big cats’ urine: it asks us to make clear that it does not in fact sell either tiger or lion urine. Many years ago the zoo sold elephant dung, but it no longer does.” The Guardian

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.