In our fact-check report we investigated the Dutch news website Nu.nl. Nu.nl is part of media group Sanoma that distributes media in several European countries. Sanoma describes Nu.nl as followed: “Nu.nl is thé digital news source of The Netherlands. Fast, trustworthy and clear: 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Nu.nl provides the latest news first in an uncoloured, innovative and clear way. Hereby, the visitors are key and advertisers are offered a big and high-quality platform.” However, as it is mentioned in the disclaimer on Nu.nl, they do not guarantee that everything on their website is correct and they do not take responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes. In this fact-checking report we investigated how accurate the stories on Nu.nl are.
In this report we have fact-checked five articles of Nu.nl that were all written by journalist Dennis Rijnvis. Dennis Rijnvis is a freelance journalist who has been working and has worked for several Dutch news websites and newspapers. His interest in articles on scientific research and his involvement in several media is what caught our attention. However, we found out that his articles for Nu.nl were the only ones that were suitable for this project and that were recent enough to be properly fact-checked. By checking his articles for Nu.nl we want to investigate if Dennis Rijnvis got his facts right, and what his methods are to create an (in)accurate story. We have also presented him our findings, and asked him for a reaction on our fact check report.
After thoroughly reading the five articles and underlining and/or colouring all the facts, we compared the information in the articles by Rijnvis to information in the original source. Regarding our main findings, we can conclude that most facts were accurate. The journalist mostly succeeded in properly translating and applying these to the news article on Nu.nl. Some of the word choices Rijnvis made were not exactly accurate. For example, Rijnvis used the word ‘entitlement’ instead of ‘narcissism’ and ‘cerebral cortex’ instead of ‘posterior cingulated/precuneus’. He also sometimes wrote more general terms whereas in the original source they mentioned specific terms and he sometimes wrote more specific terms whereas in the original source they were speaking in general terms. An example of this is the use of negative thoughts instead of repetitive negative thoughts and the use of compulsive disorders instead of internalized disorders. Furthermore, in all articles Rijnvis also left out some details about the researches. He, for example, did not mention the exact amount of participants in a study, all the topics of a questionnaire and what type of autism the participants in the study had. He also added some information that was not in the original source. For example, Rijnvis mentioned that in an article mice almost immediately restored their normal scratching behaviour, but the researchers do not mention anything about it happening almost immediately. He also mentioned in the same article that people could better not scratch when they feel an itch, but researchers mentioned that the results are applicable for mice but they do not know yet if it is applicable to humans as well, although they do suspect it is very likely. In another article, Rijnvis wrote about narcissism despite the fact that this was only mentioned in the research to explain that the results of the study are not applicable for narcissistic people. Rijnvis does seem to be aware of that as well, since he later in his article emphasized that the research is about narcissistic states and not about narcissistic traits. Furthermore, Rijnvis also makes some mistakes with the quotes he used. However, all word choices and formulation choices can probably be explained by Rijnvis’ attempt to popularize the studies. It is important to keep in mind that Rijnvis cannot use ‘scientific jargon’ in the Nu.nl website since the website is supposed to be accessible for a broad audience with different kinds of backgrounds. Rijnvis probably made all these choices to make his stories more comprehensible and attractive.
The results of the fact-check process were discussed in an interview with Dennis Rijnvis. The main questions in this interview were what sources he uses and on what he bases his stories. Rijnvis stated that he often starts by looking at (foreign) science websites. He searches for news that stands out and that would interest the readers of Nu.nl. Because he wants the topics to be understandable and relevant for every reader, he focusses on information related to daily life, animals, etcetera. After reading the news article, Rijnvis searches for the original research publication to find out what exactly was the focus of the research and looks online for interviews with the researchers. According to Rijnvis, Nu.nl has such a high time and work pressure that it is difficult for him to contact the researchers himself. When Rijnvis was asked the question whether or not he reads every research paper he discusses, his answer was “no”. He merely reads the abstract and if he does not understand that completely, he reads the methodology as well. In the interview Rijnvis also stated that he tries to look at things from the reader’s perspective. He tries to make the text more relevant and easier to understand for his readers. This is in line with our thoughts on why he chose certain words or why he chose to formulate a sentence a certain way. Rijnvis further stated that he also interprets the research and tries to determine whether it is reliable. When a study for example does not have enough participants to be reliable, he adds a sentence to place the study into perspective for his readers. Rijnvis says that he has the final responsibility for the content of his articles and that the content of the articles should be correct before they are published, and that this is up to him. Besides writing for Nu.nl, Rijnvis currently also writes for Quest and de Volkskrant. He stated that his method of writing an article is different for these media. For these media he always interviews the researchers about a study or topic he writes about. The second difference is that he thinks of these articles as more of “his own story” instead just a report about research. Rijnvis said that he reads more about the topic, conducts interviews and always sends his story to the researchers to let them check if there are any factual errors.
All in all, after checking all the facts and reviewing all the mistakes, we can state that we are satisfied with Rijnvis’ work as a journalist and Nu.nl as a medium. His articles are mostly factually correct. Sometimes he used a different choice of words or he left out some details, but as we thought and as he explained himself as well, those choices are made to make the stories more accessible and more comprehensible. Furthermore, those mistakes are not large mistakes that change the outline of the stories. The most important findings of the researches are correctly displayed.
The internet has brought us closer together. Stories can now reach much more people than let’s say 30 years ago and that’s a good thing. Much more people can have access to the stories you wrote and you can get in direct contact with your readers. But there is also a downside to this closing gap. Not only true stories are spread but also fake ones or at least not completely true ones. That is why fact-checking has become a bigger responsibility and a greater challenge. Still the amount of fact-checkers that are employed in a news organization is decreasing. It seem that the old saying ‘Get your facts straight’ isn’t as important anymore. But can you really make a good, trustworthy story without getting all the right facts?
According to this famous quote by Bernard Baruch, every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. So it is your duty to get all the right facts. Still as journalist Federico Guerrini mentioned in his article for the Oxford magazine a more popular belief among politicians, and some journalists, is why should you spoil a good story with the truth.
So which one is it? Who has the right idea about facts? Well, it isn’t that black and white. The right direction, in my opinion, lies in the middle. It is important to check your facts since it is your duty as a journalist to write accurate stories, but in some cases you can bend the truth a little to create a more attractive or interesting story. Besides, as I will explain later, it is impossible to check every single fact.
Why should you check your facts?
Fact-checking is, as I mentioned earlier, still important since it is your job as a journalist to write accurate stories. One of the newspapers that still have a separate fact-checking department is the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Their motto is “to say what is”. It is important to them “[…] to write and produce what is; to report, analyse and critique the world as it is, factually and faithfully, without fear, bias or influence”. According to the head of the fact-checking department, Dr. Eckart Teichert, Der Spiegel prints facts regardless of whether a friend or an enemy will be pleased and as a fact checker he also corrects the facts. And not only will fact-checking make your article more accurate, it will also make it more credible. Klaus Brinkbäumer, one of the three editors for Der Spiegel, calls fact-checking their selling point. He sees it as part of what makes the newspaper trusted.
Why is it important for journalists to check their facts?
Being a good fact checker basically means being a good reporter according to the former head of research Vanity Fair, as quoted in the book ‘The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right’ by Sarah Harrison Smith in 2004. But why is that so? Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book ‘The Elements of Journalism‘ that it is important for journalist to fact-check, because of the following five rules:
Why is fact-checking important for the public?
You have read now why fact-checking is important for journalists, but why is it important for the public? According to the international principles of professional ethics in journalism, as issued by the Fourth Consultative Meeting of International and Regional Organizations of Journalists in Paris on 20 November 1983, people have the right to true information and it is the journalist’s task to serve that right. The public have a right to get the objective picture of the reality. The people have a right, according to these principles, to have access to accurate and comprehensive information. They also have the right to express themselves freely through various media platforms. Furthermore, it is the journalist’s task to serve those rights to true and authentic information. Facts need to be reported in their proper context and the journalist should provide information so that the public can form a clear, honest and object picture of the world.
Why you should not and cannot get every fact right
As I said earlier, it is important to check your facts and to get the right facts, but in some cases you can bend the truth a little to create a more attractive or interesting story. Let’s say, for example, you are writing an article about how the amount of people who commit suicide increases during the holidays in December. You talk about the numbers and how they relate to other months. To describe the situation you might also say something about that many people don’t have family members to visit anymore or the days that are darker and colder during that time. Now does everything you see need to be right? Does it matter that the numbers might be incorrect? Yes, that matters since an incorrect number could change the whole story. But does it matter that December is indeed the coldest month? No, it is not important for your story that November, for example, was colder that year of the past few years than December. So it is important to get your facts right when it could change your whole point of view. But it isn’t as important to get all the right facts if it wouldn’t change much about your main point.
Furthermore, it is also impossible to get every fact right. Facts aren’t always objective. They can be open to interpretation. Facts can also change over time. Something that was a true fact years ago, might not still be a true fact.
To summarize, getting your facts straight seems less important to some nowadays, but in my opinion it still is. It is important to make sure you have the right facts and that your facts are true. It creates a trustworthy article and also increases your credibility. However, you don’t have to get, and you cannot get, ALL the facts right. In some cases you can still have a good story without having all the facts. Besides, it is also impossible to get all the facts right.