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News checkers: a thorn in the side...

With the elections on the horizon, politicians frequently make bold statements to gain the support of voters. Leiden students of journalism check the truth of these statements.

Alexander Pleijter

Are more and more school restaurants serving only kosher meat? And is the number of abortions among young women increasing? These are just two of the statements made recently by politicians in the heat of the run-up to the election. But are the statements true? Almost forty students from the master's programme in Journalism and New Media did some fact-checking and concluded that politicians often stretch the truth. Alexander Pleijter, the initiator of the project and lecturer in online journalism, explains.  

Who are the news checkers?

‘The news checkers project has been running since 2009. That's when we decided it would be a good exercise for students to examine the products of 'real' journalism. Is the news message a correct reflection of the truth, or does it raise more questions than answers? It's a good way of teaching students to develop a critical attitude and question everything. Not only that, fact-checking calls for research skills. Checking the statements of national politicions is a new area. We're doing it now in the run-up to the Dutch elections in 15 March, together with Dutch broadcaster EenVandaag.' 

Why is fact-checking important, specifically in the run-up to the elections?

‘We try to separate fiction from truth; that's the crux of journalism. Take, for example, the statement by the leader of the Social Party, Emile Roemer, that the number of jobs in Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe is falling. There is some truth in that. In certain sectors, such as healthcare, the number of jobs has deceased, but since 2013 employment has increased. Another point is that it is never easy to verify these kinds of claims. Roemer doesn't mention, for example, when employment decreased. That's a pity since the ideal fact-check covers a well-defined period. And it also helps if there are set definitions for the statements and that the figures are kept updated, by Statistics Netherlands, for example.'

And has the project been a success so far?

‘It has. The project is frequently picked up by other media. That happened with the fact-check on Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, who claimed that only kosher food is served in schools. Eight budding journalists telephoned 114 secondary schools and discovered little or no evidence for Wilders' claim. The project is also a success in terms of its teaching benefits. Checking claims often turns out to be  more difficult than expected. To get to the truth, students have waded through  lengthy party programmes and debates and requested economic data. When you set something like this as a self-study assignment, you often get a lot of sighing and moaning from students, but when it's presented as a project, they're keen to get on and do it.' 

And now...?

‘The running time of the project is almost at an end, which is a pity because the big election debates are just starting. So we asked this week whether there are students who want to continue with News checkers beside their other study activities. Around half the students indicated that they want to carry on until 15 March.’

A few of the statements checked

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