One of the speakers at the inaugural Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit, taking place at the Sandton Convention Centre on November 1 & 2 is Nechama Brodie, veteran print, broadcast and online journalist and the author of five best-selling non-fiction books.
Brodie is also the head of TRI Facts, the specialist training and research division of independent fact-checking organisation Africa Check, which focuses on sharing fact-checking concepts, methods and tools with working journalists, researchers and students across the continent.
The Summit, with the theme Awaken Your Curiosity, features an impressive array of speakers including US mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons; Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka; founder of Black Girls Code Kimberly Bryant, who has been listed as one of the “25 Most Influential African-Americans In Technology”; CEO of Moving Brands Inc. Mat Heinl and What’s Your Moonshot? trend and innovation strategist, John Sanei.
We caught up with Brodie to ask her about her presentation at the Summit:
Your presentation is titled ‘Knowledge is to power + Is there truth in data = ?’ Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
I think there is a common misunderstanding that ‘facts’ or ‘data’ is somehow unbiased – but when you really start working with not just knowledge itself but systems of knowledge, you learn how our individual, communal and societal biases have shaped the way we have pursued and collected knowledge. ‘What we know’ is also a construct, and is shaped by our past, our society’s pasts, etc. And this can be very limiting in some cases.
As a recent example, modern computer sciences have tended to be dominated quite significantly by white males. As a default, many of the data sets used when training programmes for things like facial recognition, or voice recognition, have used white males as their subjects. This has meant that these programmes have struggled to correctly identify or work with female subjects, or people of colour. This shows us that ‘knowledge’ is underwritten by systems of power. Some of these are evident, some of these are subtle. And, even when they are obvious to other people, they may still be invisible or unacknowledged by others.
When we start working with data sets, whatever size, we have to ask questions not just about their accuracy but also about their context: who produced this data and why? How did they do it? When did they do it?
I’m not saying there is no such thing as truth, or accuracy. We have very good methods to ascertain reasonable accuracy in many fields of study. But while we do this, it’s also important to interrogate information. This includes the sources we have been taught to accept as ‘real’ knowledge.
A critical point of this, though, is that asking questions of data or information is not the same as rejecting it. There is a global movement (or I could call it an anti-globalisation movement) that says because knowledge is power, we must reject all institutional knowledge, we must reject all media, must reject all governments. This is a poor approach, and tends to over-value individual knowledge which, typically, is not really that great.
What do you hope your audience will take away from it?
Not just to ‘question everything’, but practical methods that will teach you how to question information. And that will inspire you to ask better questions, more often. The secret in life is not to know everything (that would be so dull), but to know who to ask, when you have a question.
You are currently the head of TRI Facts, the research and training division of independent fact-checking agency Africa Check. Can you tell us what your day-to-day job involves.
I set up TRI Facts for Africa Check in 2015, so that we could teach people who work in any form of communication in Africa – journalists, researchers, PR and advertising people, government officials, analysts – how to apply fact-checking methods to their work. Fact-checking is not a skill that should only belong to a few.
We are very invested in sharing how we work, because it is a proven, non-partisan, effective way of approaching and understanding information – even when it’s an area, sector or country you are not familiar with. And we believe that the more transparency there is in information, the better it will be for society.
I offer specialised and general training courses on various aspects of fact-checking, from understanding what facts are (and what you can, and cannot check) to teaching people about how bias can affect your ability to find and interpret data, to teaching classes how to find local (African) data, and how to fact-check multimedia sources.
I teach everyone from high school and university students to professionals, and have been fortunate to work with several groups of journalists, editors and publishers from a number of African countries.
How important is Africa Check? What do you think would happen if it didn’t exist?
I often half-joke that the role of TRI Facts is to make Africa Check redundant: that if enough people, enough journalists, researchers, members of the public, were all doing a really good job fact-checking public statements, there would be no need for professional fact-checking organisations.
But, sadly there is a great and growing need for professional, non-partisan fact-checking services. I work as a journalist, and I am perpetually frustrated by the often lazy approach to facts and data that I see making its way into print, onto the airwaves. Of course, even when the few organisations that do a good job do this, we are continually challenged not only by… trickster politicians, but also by the new information economy offered by the internet, where misinformation, disinformation and mal-information (I will explain these terms in my talk) are experienced in a global context, locally.
What we are seeing now, in other countries, is that governments, government officials are even setting up fake fact-checking sites, or partisan pro-government fact-checking lobbies.
Africa Check is part of an initiative called the International Fact-Checking Network, and we are not only a signatory to its code of conduct but we have been audited and verified by the organisation. This is very important I think, because we haven’t just self-assessed, or made up our own rules. Another important thing, in Africa Check’s editorial content, is that our work is always transparent.
You can see our sources, click on the original documents we used. Through complete transparency, we not only share information but we also share our methods in the hope that our readers will follow suit.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt so far in your career?
I’m still learning! I started working with Africa Check in 2013, when I had already been a journalist and editor for nearly two decades. I have learned so much in the past four years, and that in itself excites me. There is always room for improvement, for change. Applying fact-checking methods to all of my work has made me a much better journalist, a better editor, a better researcher, and a better writer.
What advice would you give to this year’s graduates and those looking to start their own business?
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. There is an important place for people who like working in offices, in teams, who don’t want to be out on their own. I think we over-value this ‘self-made’ person, and sometimes undervalue or are dismissive of people who do excellent work and thrive within organisations.
For people who are graduating now, unless you’ve been a self-employed business owner since you were a kid (we all know one or two people like that! it’s an innate skill), then I recommend finding the most challenging workplace and best bosses or managers you can, and start there.
Learn from them, and then decide where you want to go. And give it time. Don’t change jobs every three months. Or: don’t assume, just because people are promoted to big titles before they hit 30, that those candidates are any good at the job.
There is a tendency now to make people very senior, very young, because it’s become almost expected. A title means nothing. Ability is everything. I have been in this profession for over 20 years now and I still feel like a junior sometimes. What I knew about managing people when I was in my early 20s, even my early 30s, was really … nothing much. Now, the work is what excites me. The title is meaningless.
What do you think makes for a good boss/manager?
Diplomacy and patience. And honesty. I’m still not sure how to mix them all together. I’m very honest, but I often lack diplomacy!
How do you improve the quality of leadership in South Africa?
Leadership is too often about politics. Literal politics or workplace politics. There are very few leaders who manage to balance political necessity with what is best for their organisation, rather than what is simply best for themselves.
I think that leaders should be more concerned about their employees, and their organisational legacy – rather than their personal brands.
Regarding the Millennial Generation: what are they doing right/wrong when it comes to their careers?
Shame, millennials really did get the rough end of the stick – they seem to be blamed and criticised for everything they do. I think the one thing I would say is that… sometimes work is not satisfying. Sometimes it’s a slog, sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes you have to cut through 10, 15 years of hard work to reach a place where you are feeling like you’re in the right place. And sometimes hard work is its own reward.
I do think that the so-called millennial generation does sometimes confuse being ‘always on’ with ‘work’. It’s not the same. Maybe they need to learn to switch off more, and talk about it (whatever ‘it’ is) less.
Anything else you would like to add?
A lot of people really don’t like being told they are wrong. So, fact-checking can push a lot of people’s buttons. But the point of this work is to try and step outside of yourself when you work with information, when you look for information, when you evaluate information. It is supposed to be uncomfortable. Comfort zones mean we stop asking questions, and that’s a terrifying prospect.