"You need a human to tell you, this is faked" - UNESCO Difference Day panelist

by ECPMF staff

World Press Freedom Day is marked again this May, and all the signs are that the world is getting less free. So the related events in Brussels have an added urgency in 2017.

Fact-checking_900X600 Actual humans are still the best bet for fact-checking. (Photo and art: ECPMF)

As well as obvious new political threats – for example in Macedonia, Hungary and Turkey – Europe's journalists also face shadowy forces who are fabricating fake news and poisoning public discourse with hate speech.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom is working to meet these challenges. In the framework of the UNESCO Difference Day celebrating journalists and diverse voices, ECPMF project manager Jane Whyatt set up a debate about the role of quality journalism.

Belgian investigative reporter Alain Lallemand, of Le Soir newspaper, is among the distinguished panel speakers. He has taken time out from his latest reportage on the Kazakhgate scandal involving former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to take part in the Difference Day event.

@ UNESCO Difference Day

Difference Day is organised by the European Commission and UNESCO at the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels on Wednesday, 3 May. ECPMF's panel debate is entitled "Journalism in a post truth climate: is quality journalism an answer?" It takes place 13:00-14:30 in the Terarken venue at Rue Ravensteinstraat 23, 1000 Brussels. It's free to attend but you must register here. Check out the full programme here.


He also gave Jane Whyatt an interview about the current state of journalism, technology, fake news and media education.

ECPMF: What is your view on fake news?

I've been aware of it since 2013 when I was working on Offshore Leaks. I also work with the ICIJ and the EIJC and Spiegel magazine, and we are aware of security and encryption problems.

I fear that when we have large leaks, like Wikileaks and the Panama Papers, it is easy to hide fake news actually in the documents being leaked. In these big international investigations, there are a bunch of documents that are not in the reporters' hands. They don't see the whole bunch of documents. How do we make sure we are all sticking to the ethical standards of checking and double-checking every document?

Is there a technical solution to this problem, and the logistical challenge of checking every document amongst millions?

No. You have to do all the checks and balances. Some colleagues rely on the leaked documents as though they are the Bible. They're not. They are a tip.

You have to continue to double- and triple-check with another source for every document. The basic need for taking care [regarding] every revelation is something we need to stress.

Have you found examples of fake news in your own work?

There is disinformation that is hard to spot. It comes from European classic intelligence agencies, economic players, private detectives. We are investigating the case of a French/Belgian Kazakh businessman and found fake documents dating back 15 years from the intelligence agencies.

Is there a generational difference between old-school investigative reporters and the new breed of younger data journalists?

We always make an effort to get our younger colleagues involved in confrontation interviews. It's become a standing joke! The younger ones rely on the tehcnical business of indexing, encryption, contextualisiation, cross-checking on the internet.

But after you have written the story, you still have to do the confrontation with the people involved. Documents are not sacred. They can be faked. You need a human (who knows the material) to tell you, "This is faked".

People think fake news comes from social media. Actually it comes from intelligence agencies and from private detectives working for commercial companies, well-paid efficient agents who try to f**k up journalists. They call it 'black ops'."

Would it be a good idea to teach journalism students about these techniques?

I deliver an investigative journalism module at the University of Louvaine-la-Neuve. It takes the whole 30-hour module just to teach them how we build a network, how we plan an investigation and the legal aspects.

It will take a sociological generation shift before we have a body of students who enter he course already knowing about investigative networks.

What about mid-career professionals? Are they better equipped to eliminate fake news?

In the newsroom at Le Soir, we have held a session on encryption training, delivered by a colleague who teaches at the University of Liège. But we find it's really difficult to interest mid-career professionals, to convince them that it's necessary. This is my challenge: to answer the problem of fake news with quality journalism.

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