Australia has suddenly become a hotbed for political factchecking. In May, PolitiFact Australia launched as the first international affiliate of the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact, bringing the site’s signature Truth-O-Meter ratings to the country’s ongoing election campaign. And in early July, an independent Australian website called The Conversation launched its own dedicated Election FactCheck site, which departs from the approach taken by elite factcheckers in the United States in several interesting ways. I interviewed the site’s editor, Gay Alcorn, by email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Gay, congratulations on the launch of the site. I’d like to start by learning more about The Conversation, which is an interesting idea in its own right, and how the Election FactCheck section came about. Could you briefly tell our American readers about the concept for The Conversation and why you decided to launch a factchecking website as a new feature?
The Conversation was launched in March 2011. I wasn’t involved with it at that stage, but it was founded by Andrew Jaspan, a former editor of The Observer in London and The Age in Melbourne. It is funded mostly by universities, as well as government, corporate and individual donations, and the idea was to get academic expertise and research into the broader public conversation.
Mostly, the site runs opinion and analysis pieces from academic experts and news stories on academic research. It’s a collaboration between the academics and professional journalists—editors commission articles and edit them to ensure they can be easily understood by a non-expert reader. The site now has more than a million unique browsers a month, a great achievement for a new venture. This year, it launched a UK site, and there is talk of a US version. Some background on The Conversation is here.
Factchecking seemed a natural extension to what The Conversation was already doing. The site has published factchecks before, but our Election FactCheck page is far more extensive. We watched what was happening with factchecking in the US, and thought it would be worthwhile to try our method for Australia’s national election to be held later this year.
One of the most interesting aspects of the site is the changes you have made to the standard factchecking format used by elite US factchecking sites. Can you explain what you changed, why, and how it fits in with the mission and approach of The Conversation?
We’re using The Conversation’s greatest resource—Australia’s academics, who write opinion and analysis for the general site all the time. The editors commission an academic with subject expertise to check a statement from a politician, a political party, an interest group, or the media. We then have a “blind” review process. A second academic with subject expertise reviews the check without knowing the identity of the original author. We just wanted to add an extra layer of rigor to the process.
So the journalists and editors will do some basic journalistic work—ringing up the politician’s office, for instance, to ask them the source for the statement, but the academic writes the factcheck based on his or her knowledge and research. We’ve found what works best for us are checks on statements where academic expertise can add value. One example is that some readers have asked us to check how many media interviews our opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has granted this year because there has been some criticism that he is avoiding the media. That’s not really one for us because it’s more a reporting job.
There are a couple of other differences in our approach. We intended to use a rating system similar to PolitiFact, but we abandoned it before we launched. We ended up deciding it was “Mostly Meaningless.” We still give a one or two line Verdict, and it’s often a strong verdict, but we don’t want to distort issues by giving all checks a one or two-word rating.