Just the facts

This story, written by Abigail Keller, was originally posted on endeavors.unc.edu. An audio version is available below. 

In South Korea, there is only one fact-checking platform. And Carolina Ph.D. student Heesoo Jang '24 helped establish it.

During the second year of her master’s program at Seoul National University (SNU), Jang’s ideas and research facilitated the creation of SNU FactCheck Center, a not-for-profit collaboration between the SNU Institute of Communication Research and 31 major Korean media outlets.

The center’s goal is to improve the knowledge and understanding of consumers through fact-checking services, which is exactly what Jang does with her research today at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I look into the process of journalism,” she says. “I want to encourage journalists to be transparent about the process of fact-checking and how they ended up with their conclusions.”

At the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Jang researches how AI systems and digital platforms impact society, journalism, and democracy.

But before she entered the world of mainstream news, she wanted to be a science-fiction writer.

Fiction to fact-checking

When she was just 12 years old, Jang was creating fictional stories about androids and other futuristic technologies as part of an online community. Although she was writing about the future, she felt readers wanted a believable narrative with authentic details.

“I would devote more time to research and checking facts to construct a realistically surreal background in which my story would unfold,” she shared.

For one story, she spent two weeks researching possible professions for a character. When she considered making them a violinist, she watched hours of videos of Itzhak Perlman’s performances.

This passion for storytelling and media eventually led Jang to Korea University, where she majored in journalism.

“But I didn’t have everything figured out at the time,” she admitted.

She learned more about the industry by interning with Seoul-based newspaper JoongAng from 2011 to 2013. Working alongside veteran journalists, she witnessed the fact verification that went into each story and participated in research to aid this process.

“But I was also alarmed to observe how these well-researched articles became sidelined in the larger media landscape,” she said. “They got lost in the deluge of provocative headlines and sensational images that have become increasingly pervasive in today’s digital media environment.”

Inspired to mitigate this problem, Jang pursued a journalism master’s program at Seoul National University, where she studied under Sugmin Youn. With support from a major Korean tech company, Youn was collaborating with newsrooms across the country to learn how to improve the fact-checking process. The project led to the creation of the SNU FactCheck Center in 2017.

Today, the center is the only platform of its kind in South Korea. It cross-verifies information and provides media outlets with one of five ratings: not true, mostly not true, half true, mostly true, and true. The goal is to build trust between the media and citizens.

Navigating news consumption

As a founding member of the center, Jang oversaw its business model research task force, collaborating with other researchers and coordinating monthly meetings with the 31 news organizations involved to understand the role of fact-checking and its potential.

“I loved it,” she stressed. “I learned the importance of newsroom-research collaborations, community-focused education, and sustainable funding models. This experience was instrumental in shaping my passion for journalism — and it has been the heart of my research ever since.”

To establish a more comprehensive concept of news literacy, Jang researched existing literature across the journalism, sociology, and information science fields. Then, she conducted a survey with users of all ages to learn how different generations perceive, understand, and use news. Her biggest finding was that young people access and share news across multiple paths and platforms, ultimately creating more news-related communications than other generations.

As her master’s program neared its end, Jang found herself wanting to learn more about traditional journalism — especially since the field was shrinking in South Korea, with many universities focusing on newer platforms like social media.

“Bridging the gap between Western and non-Western academia has always been my goal,” she said. “I knew pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S. would allow me to be at the center of global academic conversations, where the latest research and conferences primarily occur.”

Additionally, most artificial intelligence platform companies are also headquartered in the United States — and Jang wanted access to these technological advancements.

Upon looking at Ph.D. programs, Jang felt the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media might offer the same collaborative environment she found at SNU FactCheck. And she was right.

“The biggest reason I chose UNC was people supported each other here and that was very important to me,” she says. “It’s about putting yourself out there and being evaluated all the time, and it’s really helpful to know that I have my community, and they love me, and that’s all that matters.”


Carolina Ph.D. student Heesoo Jang researches how AI systems and digital platforms impact society, journalism and democracy. (photo by Megan Mendenhall)


Trust, truth and technology

Jang defines her three threads of research as democracy, media ethics and platform governance.

In the context of media and technologies like AI, democracy means access to reliable, diverse information — which is crucial for informed decision-making and participation. Media ethics are the principles and standards that guide journalists and media organizations, and platform governance impacts what information reaches the public and shapes the digital media environment.

“I think the one theme that goes through all of these subjects is making sure that people are living in a society where there is a healthy information system that gives them reliable information,” she said.

By combining these concepts, Jang assesses how algorithms and moderation polices enhance and undermine information quality, examines how digital platforms can support reliable information and combat misinformation and considers the ethical implications of technologies like AI.

For one of her recent projects, Jang and her team conducted a content analysis of U.S. media coverage. This included hundreds of news articles and opinion pieces on political candidates who ran for office in the 2022 mid-term elections and subsequently denied the results of the 2020 elections.

They found that journalists failed to clearly refute and condemn illegitimate claims by politicians. This suggests how fragile our elections are and threatens the peaceful transfer of power that’s occurred up until this decade, according to Jang.

“Journalism plays a vital role in defending democracies by exposing and opposing threats to free and fair elections,” she stressed. “And journalists have the ability — and responsibility — to alert the public to these threats.”

In another project, she used data from a nationally representative survey of over 10,000 Americans to investigate what drives their opinions on who should be responsible for social media content — the government, the platforms or individual users.

“Decreasing trust in the news is one of the struggles that we face, but it’s an important struggle,” she says. “It initiates a lot of important conversations around the meanings of journalism to society and what we should do in order to reconnect with readers and citizens.”

Classroom to career

As a part of her Ph.D. program, Jang taught Carolina undergraduates about media ethics. In her classes, she presented different case studies and explained how to make ethical decisions as media professionals. She wants to help students understand that there is no one “right way” to do this. There will always be nuances and contexts for each individual case.

“Students need to be able to use these skills in real life,” she said. “I want them to be useful in the future and not something that they forget after a final exam.”

After graduating in July 2024, Jang will become an assistant professor of media law and ethics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She hopes to expand her research and framework to countries outside of the U.S. to encourage more international cooperation on these topics and bring media ethics resources to those who need it most.

“My research will always aim toward understanding how we can make sure that journalism works in a way that really serves the citizens and gives them information to participate in discussions that make their voices heard,” she said.