Looking back on five years volunteering at Full Fact

29 August 2019 | Sinéad Boultwood

When I apprehensively made my way into a Bloomsbury pub in November 2014 I had no idea of the adventure that awaited. Like all good adventures, this one starts in a busy pub. I’d been summoned there by an email blast from a small organisation called Full Fact. 

I eventually found Mevan, then the communications officer. She smiled at my tired, bewildered face, told me a bit about Full Fact, asked me about myself, and took my details. In January 2015 I joined Full Fact as one of a growing army of volunteers building up to the 2015 general election.

Not having any particular expertise my first job was holding up prompt signs during the filming of the crowdfunding promo video. It was fascinating. My first taste of Full Fact was meeting staff at their most enthusiastic and charming and that good impression has never faded. Full Fact’s staff are some of the friendliest, most dedicated people I’ve ever met. They are all tackling hard problems in new ways, and learning from all the frustrations that brings.

I spent the first few months helping with general communications tasks: making lists of media Twitter handles, thanking our generous crowd funders, and so on. As the election approached Full Fact’s mammoth 16 hour a day fact checking centre sucked me into the media monitoring team. For six weeks I spent Wednesday afternoons watching and listening to programmes like Radio 4's PM and writing every claim made into a spreadsheet. This work is monotonous but fascinating. I’d never paid such close attention to what politicians actually say. Plus, knowing that my endless spreadsheets were being read by analysts and fact checkers so they could correct errors before they spread too far helped keep me going.

Well, I’d caught the fact checking bug. I volunteered to stay. My days consisted of more monitoring spreadsheets: here’s every claim I can find in the UK press or Hansard in the last three months about the minimum wage, or A&E waiting times or whatever. I am delighted to say that my old job is being stolen by computers. Thanks to Full Fact’s excellent automated fact checking team the computers are much better at it than I was.

Gradually Mevan found ways for me to get more involved in the research work. I learnt far too much about the workings of the European Union and the EEA to write background briefings for fact checkers. I transcribed Prime Minister’s Questions in real time for live fact checking (a job that has also been stolen by computers, thanks to Full Fact’s tech team). 

Eventually I started writing fact checks too. I’ve written short chunks of context for PMQs round-ups, and I became the office expert on prison violence, writing a long ‘everything we can tell you’ article. I’ve watched some issues come up repeatedly at PMQs until a policy is changed. Most memorably the issue of the cost of children’s funerals. I started writing a fact check back in 2016, only to pass it off once because it hit too close to home. The Children’s Funeral Fund for England opened in July.

I’ve also had wonderful opportunities 2014-me wouldn’t have believed. In 2016 I organised a Wikipedia edit-a-thon which was namechecked by Wikimedia’s CEO at the international fact checking conference. I was barely aware that edit-a-thons existed when I agreed to take charge of the project. But Full Fact trusted me enough to do it, and I did. I’ve helped to live fact check a major TV debate, and met some of my heroes. I’ve also met incredible journalists who are doing this job in the most challenging situations through the International Fact-checking Network. 

Volunteering at Full Fact has made me less cynical. Paying more attention to the claims politicians are making, the issues backbenchers are raising, and the improvements in UK statistics has made me more positive about politics, not less. Yes, there’s a lot still to be done (and Full Fact needs all the support it can get driving those changes), but from what I’ve seen the problems are more misunderstandings than untruths, and carelessness than deliberation. Not good, but fixable.

So, that’s my adventure. And finally, what have I learned?

Try for many sides, not just both.

After a job interview for an economics graduate scheme I was told that I was already thinking like an economist. Partly I credit this to spending six more years of thinking about economics than most new grads. Largely though it’s practising a different way of thinking.

In the interview I couldn’t always remember what effects a certain policy would have. Every time I got stuck, however, I'd just try a different tack. Producer theory has failed me? How would competing firms react? How about consumers? Any interesting sub-groups? Who's vulnerable? Are they particularly affected? Any wider impacts? Where I couldn't answer my questions I asked them out loud anyway, and explained what I wanted to know.

This 'explore all angles' approach is certainly something I learned at Full Fact. Obviously not every point of view can be covered in short articles, but writing for Full Fact taught me to pay attention to them.

Be clear about definitions.

People do not equal jobs, and families, households and benefit units are talking about different groups. A manager at my summer internship was impressed with how quickly I thought of the stories we could pull out of the data. I’m used to paying attention to things like customers vs. visits vs. transactions, and the different things they each tell us.

And care about the denominator!

Does that pay rise account for inflation? What’s the total you’re dividing by in that percentage? Yes, it’s impressive that you have more people every year, but the population is rising as well. 

Paying attention to the bottom half of fractions, and asking about growth, rates of change and so on often gets to the heart of a statistical claim.

The pub rule of phrasing.

When you spend all day reading official reports and academic articles that language can seep into your brain. The pub rule (coined by a former Full Fact staff member) reminds you to write like you're explaining the issue to your mate in the pub. What would you actually say up front? How would you explain it? I'm often still guilty of burying the lede and starting with a 'definitions and methods' section. Revising my draft with the pub rule makes my writing more readable. After all, if my audience wanted stuffy, technical language they can read the original source- that’s why there are so many hyperlinks.

And most importantly:

Say yes to things, even (especially) if they’re daunting.

I’ve heard this tip repeated by successful people in several spheres now, and it’s true. 2014-me would not believe the list of things I’ve achieved and experiences I’ve had at Full Fact. If I'd listened to my own doubts and anxieties I'd have missed out on a lot. I trusted that Full Fact's excellent staff knew what they wanted, and had a good reason to ask me, and it turned out they were right.

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