Getting the facts right on air: The TV producers fast guide to fact checking

November 30, 2015 by Megan Burnside

TV Production Industry Evolving

With the increasing popularity of TV streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, the UK TV production industries continues to grow. The Guardian reports that inward production investment has grown nearly two-fold in the past three years, reaching a record £500m last year. What's more, the UK is exporting programming more than ever, with £1.3bn in sales in 2016. Add in an ever-widening range of digital channels for distributing video and live content, and it's clear that the industry is just getting started.

Yet even with positive growth projections, TV producers have some worries—most notably the lack of trust in TV programmes, broadcast news brands and journalists, despite Ofcom regulations on presenting unbiased news stories. Countries like the UK or U.S.— which boast vigorous tabloid press and entertainment-focused 'news' programming—tend to have lower trust levels. But scandals related to invasions of privacy, a marked rise in satire-based media outlets, and the current 'alternative facts' atmosphere have led to further declines in trust. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016, 42 percent of UK adults surveyed trust news organizations and even fewer—29 percent—trust journalists. And social media is adding fuel to the fire.

Social Media Expands Audiences & Reputational Risk

As social media has become one of the primary means to communicate, so called "second screen" behaviours have developed.  Encouraged by the programmes themselves, people have been turning to social media to share views and interact on the small screen whilst watching TV on a bigger screen. In 2016, for example, saw nearly 100 million tweets related to UK TV programmes. Sport ran ahead of all other categories, garnering 57.3 million tweets and eclipsing the second and third place finishers—entertainment at 19.3 million tweets and current affairs—thanks, in part to Brexit and the U.S. presidential campaign—at 9.3 million tweets.

This huge increase in audience size and engagement brings into sharp focus production companies' responsibility to ensure accuracy and fairness in the programmes they create. Fact checking has always been critically important before something airs on TV. In the digital world, however, mistakes can go viral in a moment. With the rise of social media—coupled with the decline in trust in the media fueled by the current 'fake news' versus 'alternative facts' debate—the importance of fact checking has grown.

Facebook, in fact, acknowledged inaccurate reporting—whether distributed on purpose by biased media outlets or shared by mistake by traditional TV news programmes—can have far-reaching repercussions. Prior to the recent UK general election, the social media giant took out ads in British newspapers offering tips on spotting misinformation—a reaction in response to criticism of the amount of fake news spread via the social network in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election. Several TV news outlets have been forced to issue retractions after reporting on a viral story that turned out to be false, and all suffered damage to their reputations as a result.


Swimming against the tide

For independent production companies, maintaining exacting standards when it comes to presenting facts are critical. Simply to do business with the BBC, independents need to become an approved supplier and each is re-checked every three years for compliance.  Furthermore every programme created for the BBC requires the completion of a comprehensive compliance declaration, the first point of which relates to potential legal risks.  Independents that are unable to complete this satisfactorily are unlikely to be commissioned or see their work on air. After all, it's not just the independents' reputations that are on the line.

This is not the only risk. OFCOM regularly fines and reprimands companies over factual issues, dealing with around 300 breaches of its guidelines per year.  In an industry with a large number of suppliers to a small number of commissioners, it is vital to gain and maintain a reputation for accuracy.

Fact checking checklist

How do independent production companies manage the process of ensuring that on air content is factually accurate?  Here is our five-point guide:

1. Ensure that everyone within the organisation knows the importance of fact checking
No TV production company goes out of its way to get something wrong—errors are the cause of most issues.  It is therefore critical that everyone involved in a production is aware of risks.

2. Manage risk effectively
Clearly accusations against people or organisations carry the largest risk of factual errors.  However it is important not to assume facts are facts.  Critical to this is reliable sources of information. When your source is a person, ask "How do you know that?" Then assess any possible bias and vet disclosures by a secondary source.

3. Do not rely on public search engines or user generated sites
Journalists used to insist on having two independent sources for any information to be treated as legitimate.  In the digital age it is much harder to ensure two sources are independent because of how information is referenced and linked on the web.  Reliable sources of public information do not include Wikipedia!

4. Review content independently
A powerful tool to deploy is using a third party to review fact checking.  This ensures that those closest to the story are not both judge and jury

5. Ensure an audit trail of fact checking
If something does go wrong, being able to demonstrate how records were kept and efforts to fact check were made can be a powerful mitigating tool. Keep accurate records including notes, snapshots of web pages and articles used as sources, a list of databases searched and search results used, a list of all sources, and a list of statistics used and where you found them.

p.s. 3 ways you can apply this information right now to better understand news monitoring and analytics

1. Monitor industry conversations to keep track of what the press and internet are saying. Our innovative technology and premium content—including traditional and new media—will help you transform information into actionable intelligence. Find out more.
2. Ensure you have a powerful social analytics solution to drive insights in a changing media landscape.
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