As French presidential hopefuls jostle their way to the April 22 poll, a handful of political fact-checking websites are shaking up traditional journalism in France.
The day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy set the tone for his re-election bid with a fiery speech in the southern city of Marseille, newspaper editorialists weighed in on the themes and tone of the incumbent’s address in predictable fashion. In contrast, Les Décodeurs, a popular blog run by Lemonde.fr, took a very different approach: check the truth in Sarkozy’s claims.
The blog focused on two precise attacks Sarkozy unleashed on his election rival, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande. The first charge was that Hollande was ready to eliminate nuclear industry jobs in exchange for electoral gains, while the second maintained that if Hollande backtracked on Sarkozy’s 2010 retirement reforms, France’s pension system would collapse within a decade.
After scrutinizing an election pact between the opposition Socialists and their Green Party allies as well as paging through studies on retirement costs from specialised research institutions, Décodeurs decided to stamp a bright green “MOSTLY TRUE” label on Sarkozy’s first claim and an accusatory red “MOSTLY FALSE” on the second.
While the fact-checking exercise may sound like standard knee-jerk journalism, Décodeurs belongs to a relatively novel and exciting trend in French media. Décodeurs, Désintox and Les Pinocchios are part of a growing list of websites that are answering a new demand for rapid fact-finding and changing the way this year’s presidential campaign is being fought.
According to Alice Antheaume, deputy director of the journalism school at Sciences Po university in Paris, the “fact-checking” phenomenon is evident in the catchy names and designs of several like-minded projects cropping up on the web. However, she insists, the craze is not so much about verifying facts—already a well-established practice in France—but rather the speed at which journalists can now confirm or reject a politician’s word. “What has changed is the push to fact-check in almost real time,” Antheuaume said.
Presidential campaign boost
While French journalists began breaking down and verifying figures from political speeches in late 2009 and 2010 on the blogs Décodeurs and Désintox, these projects at first struggled to get attention. In a Nov 2010 interview, the authors of both blogs told the online news website OWNI they lacked the staff and that managers were unwilling to invest more money in their initiatives.
Sciences Po’s Antheuaume explains that interest in rapid-fire fact-checking soared in 2011 during the opposition Socialist Party’s primaries to pick a presidential nominee. “During the first TV debates, live blogs began to verify the claims made by the candidates,” she said. “Now that that presidential campaign is in full swing, the practice has accelerated. Now journalists check if campaign promises were already made, or if they contradict previous promises, or if they are feasible.”
Nicolas Patte, a data journalist with OWNI, said France’s fact-checking bent draws inspiration from PolitiFact.com, the Pulitzer Prize winning website put out by the Tampa Bay Times. In association with French iTele, OWNI recently launched the Véritomètre website. Like PolitiFact, Véritomètre does more than simply submitting politician’s claims to a lie detector test, going beyond to measure candidates’ overall credibility and comparing results.
OWNI’s Patte agreed that the French 2012 presidential contest was a major catalyst for the fact-checking bent in France. “One year ago we started thinking how we could enhance our coverage of the election. We felt the obligation to re-create [PolitiFact] as a tool for French voters,” he said. “We wanted to give them a new and transparent way of judging the candidates.”
The Véritomètre went online just one week after the Désixtox blog launched its own Bobaromètre, or Fib-o-metre. While the Véritomètre gives a grade for credibility and the Bobaromètre for dishonesty, the two web tools share the same objective. So far, however, the rankings of the two online truth thermometers are not in sync. For example, the Véritomètre says far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is the least honest, while President Sarkozy tops the Bobaromètre’s fib chart.
The direct repercussions of these and other fact-checking initiatives is difficult to measure, but there is anecdotal evidence they are influencing this year’s election. “Journalists at Le Monde have told us that the candidates are suddenly being more attentive to the figures they quote,” said Sciences Po’s Antheuaume. “[Journalists] hope that with time there will be a real change.”
Whether candidates will strive to bring up their own truth “grades” remains to be seen, but they have taken notice of the new accuracy watchdogs. Hollande’s campaign website has jumped on the bandwagon, recently shining a spotlight on figures from France’s INSEE national statistics agency—which contradict Sarkozy’s push to raise retail taxes.
Demand and supply
Since OWNI’s Véritomètre went online February 17, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of unique visitors, according to Patte. The data journalist said that his and competing fact-checking tools were responding to as-yet-unmet expectations among the public. “We knew this was going to be an important election and if we placed our bets on this project it was because we felt a need among voters.”
Many in France criticize what they call the mainstream press’ softball approach with political leaders. The easy questions dangled in front of the disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn last September during his first television interview is one a recent example. The interview drew ire from viewers and analysts alike, not just because it failed to satisfy the intrigue surrounding his legal battle in New York, but because it was conducted by journalist Claire Chazal, a close fried of Strauss-Kahn’s wife, Anne Sinclair.
But some news sources, especially those that exist exclusively online, seem eager to take the gloves off. Freed from the traditional ties to power, and avidly competing for readership, “pure play” (internet-only) news sites like Mediapart and Rue89 have been challenging political leaders and traditional journalism head on. France’s fact-digging rush may just be the next outpost in this shifting media landscape.
Main image from OWNI and iTele’s Veritomètre website