Journalists as political fact-checkers : rethinking journalism’s epistemic authority

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Title: Journalists as political fact-checkers : rethinking journalism’s epistemic authority
Author: Husu, Elisa
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Social Research (2010-2017)
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2020
Language: eng
Thesis level: master's thesis
Degree program: Politiikan ja viestinnän maisteriohjelma
Master's Programme in Politics, Media and Communication
Magisterprogrammet i politik, medier och kommunikation
Specialisation: Viestintä
Media and Communication
Medier och kommunikation
Abstract: During this century, political fact-checking has emerged as a novel genre in journalism to combat challenges to journalism’s legitimacy crisis relating to political, economic, and social changes. In the new media ecology, journalism has lost its gatekeeper status and authority as the central information mediator, and journalists are increasingly coping with challenges of so-called fake news and disinformation. Political fact-checking reflects journalists’ defense against the current situation where their fact-based discipline is constantly under reputation threat. However, journalists proceeding to judge whether politicians’ predicated knowledge claims are verifiable facts, they confront their capabilities and shortcomings in making such judgements. Journalists directly deal with the essence of facts and their ability to place them in contexts. This study contributes to the field of journalism and fact-checking by employing an epistemological framework, which has only recently been reintroduced as a theoretical approach to journalism studies. This thesis is a qualitative research with six semi-structured interviews with Finnish journalists to analyze journalists’ sensemaking in the context of political fact-checking. The method applies discourse analysis to study the regular interpretative practices through which participants construct their fact-checking. In addition, the thesis analyzes emerging aspects of the journalists’ epistemic authority based on their sensemaking performance. The results indicate that journalists approach political fact-checking through problem-oriented and solution-oriented repertoires. Discourses within problem-oriented repertoires unveil several epistemological problems that journalists encounter as they proceed to judge politicians’ claims as true or false: Political communication often creates difficulties to identify fact-based discourse, and journalists tend to lack evidence in convincing themselves of their judgement because facts may turn out to be unsettled on close inspection. Furthermore, social media that utilizes fact-checking can be problematic since journalistic fact-checks are taken out of their initial context. Within a solution-oriented repertoire, journalists construct methods to cope with these presented challenges. They advocate for more collaboration in the newsroom, involve colleagues in verification, and support making this process transparent to the public. This thesis approaches journalists’ role as epistemic authorities critically: Journalistic fact-checking relies on collaborative context construction rather than on journalists’ individual reasoning. Journalistic authority is to be distinct from political authority, and journalists defend their neutral role with the journalistic methods and values that guide their practice. Fact-checking is influenced not only by journalism’s internal procedures and values, especially fairness, balance, and public service but also by the external institutional structures.
Subject: Political fact-checking
social epistemology
epistemic authority
discourse analysis

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