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October 18, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:23pm

Full Fact makes diversification of £2.5m annual funding revenue ‘big priority’

By Bron Maher

The editor of UK-based fact-checker Full Fact has said diversifying its £2.5m annual funding streams, big chunks of which currently come from the tech giants and philanthropic funders, is a “big priority”.

The charity is currently about 35% funded by Facebook and Google, but pulls in a growing figure from individual donors.

Editor Steve Nowottny told Press Gazette that “the less dependent you are on any one stream, the better – and the better it looks”.

And he said the fact checker’s “wave it in front of their faces” model is working to stem misinformation.

Nowottny, formerly news and investigations editor at Money Saving Expert and editor at GP’s magazine Pulse, also said internal Full Fact research indicated the press was doing reasonably well at reporting on Covid.

There are three main sources for the claims Full Fact checks: politicians, the press and social media.

Nowottny, who started as editor at Full Fact in August 2021, said fact-checking politicians was to some extent the organisation’s founding mission – “​​looking at really big, impactful claims and the big names making it”. (The charity was set up in 2010 by a cross-party group led by businessman Michael Samuel, who remains its chairman.)

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The media comes in for regular checks too, particularly on science and health reporting. But “probably numerically, the most common kind of check we’ve been publishing recently is the stuff that we do looking at online misinformation”.

One recent example was a viral picture purporting to show the BBC‘s Jeremy Bowen “pretending” to be on the frontline as a Ukrainian woman looks on puzzled – in fact the woman was fleeing the area.

Where does Full Fact’s funding come from?

Many of these claims are referred to Full Fact through Facebook’s third-party fact-checking programme.

Just shy of 35% of the charity’s £2.45m funding in 2021 came from either Facebook parent Meta, Google parent Alphabet, or collaborations between the tech mammoths and the International Fact Checking Network.

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Nowottny said: “Our big priority at the moment is trying to move to as mixed an income base as possible so we’re not reliant on any one particular stream.

“So we have big philanthropic funders, we have individual donors, we receive money from Google and Meta for instance for our third-party fact-checking work… Obviously, the more diversified you can be the better.”

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The outlet does receive large sums from other sources. Luminate, a non-profit endowed by Ebay’s founder which funds a range of anti-misinformation initiatives, accounted for almost 20% of Full Fact’s income in 2019. In 2021 gift aid and small donations from individuals provided almost 50% more funding to Full Fact than Google did.

Facebook appears to be moving away from philanthropic or business investments in news, having in July ceased paying US publishers for their news content in its News Tab, but Nowottny said worries about one funder had not prompted the diversification drive.

“I think just as a general principle, the less dependent you are on any one stream, the better – and the better it looks as well.

“Because the question you’re asking is the question we get asked all the time – ‘How independent are you?’ And that kind of thing – I mean, we are fully editorial independent from all of our funders.”

As an organisation frequently trying to speak authoritatively about truth and falsehood in politics, Full Fact faces regular queries from sceptics about its editorial independence.

“If we write about a funder even in passing, we always state it at the bottom of the [article]. But having been editor for a year, I’ve never had a single conversation about [a conflict of interest]. The only conversations I’ve sometimes had is: ‘We’re writing about someone who funds us, how do we make it clear they’ve had nothing to do with the check?’”

‘We don’t fact-check the future’

The organisation has a carefully politically balanced board, but fact-checks on more philosophical questions such as “The Nazis were not socialists” have prompted accusations it sometimes wobbles off-piste. How does Full Fact decide what’s a fact that needs checking?

“We have a constant debate – ‘Is this one for us? Is this one we should go in on?’ Those are the terms that we use in Slack daily about everything,” said Nowottny.

“I mean – we’re fact-checkers. So we have to start with a claim that has to be an actual claim, and we have to come to some kind of conclusion on it. We don’t have to come to a ‘this is correct, this is incorrect’ conclusion, because that would limit very much what we can do.

“But we’re very clear: we don’t fact-check the future, for instance. We’re not here to talk about the feasibility of proposals. So when we did the leadership debate, for instance, we check very much factual claims, but if someone said ‘We plan to do X’, we wouldn’t get involved with ‘Is that feasible?’”

Does fact-checking even work?

The extent and impact of misinformation, as well as the efficacy of fact-checking as a way to combat it, remains a live issue.

The same day Press Gazette interviewed Nowottny, The New York Times published an article warning “Misinformation Swirls in Non-English Languages Ahead of Midterms” – and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab put up an academic literature round-up titled “Were fears about the ‘infodemic’ overblown?”

“I think there is evidence that fact-checking can make a difference,” Nowottny said. “But having come into the world of fact-checking around a year ago, it is a strange thing to do.

“Because ‘checking facts’ is such a colloquial phrase – people have their own views of what it might be and what its limitations are…

“When we start work in the morning and [we’re] looking at what there is to write about in the day, there is plenty for us to usefully write about and plenty of good that we can do by doing so.”

Nowottny is therefore “definitely optimistic” that fact-checking can make a difference.

He said the organisation had moved from a stance of “publish and pray” to “publish and act” – meaning it will do things to try and bring about change as a result of the fact-check rather than just hoping as many people see it as saw the original information “because you’re always going to lose it there”.

“It’s not just about writing the fact-check – we then kind of wave it in front of their face and get them to try and do something about it.”

What it’s like fact-checking journalists

Asked how newspapers react when Full Fact flags a correction it believes should be made, Nowottny said “they tend to respond fairly well”.

The organisation has an interventions manager who splits her time roughly in half between requesting corrections from newspapers versus politicians. Nowottny noted that she “tends to get a much prompter and more positive response from newspapers versus politicians, who we can struggle to get to make corrections”.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Full Fact felt the press had performed better than expected.

Nowottny cited an internal, unpublished analysis of science reporting in national papers the charity recently carried out to say that despite the recurring problem of confusing correlation and causation in scientific studies, “lots of the reporting was good”.

“It was there that we made the observation that, actually, we have fewer concerns about the Covid stuff than the non-Covid stuff from this sample.”

Asked whether he had any advice for journalists on reporting more accurately, he declined to offer any because they try not to “tell journalists how to do their jobs”.

“We’re also journalists, and we get how difficult it is. And we’re going through the same process with our articles – and we still sometimes don’t get it right.

“And we’re also aware that a lot of working journalists often have to do what they do an awful lot faster than we do. We have the luxury – and we require ourselves – to take time over this stuff. One of our journalists who joined us recently used to write eight, ten stories a day. We completely get the pressures, so I wouldn’t want to do that.”

He did share a “narrow request”, however: “Please engage with us if we come ask about your article – because we’re not trying to catch people out and sometimes we just have a question.”

Picture: Full Fact

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