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Peter Burger: 'I investigate where a strange story comes from.'

Peter Burger is a university lecturer at the master in Journalism and New Media and co-founder of Nieuwscheckers. He now teaches the course Factchecken at Leiden University. He also supervises theses and internships and conducts research into the trustworthiness of news and messages on social media.

Dragons, unicorns and mermaids

Although he is now a lecturer in journalism, Peter himself studied something else: 'I studied Dutch, in Leiden, specialising in medieval literature.' This may seem completely different from what he does now, but it is not. ‘There is a link between medieval literature and what I do now, because what fascinated me in medieval literature were the special stories.’ For example, stories about animals we know, such as cats, dogs, mice and foxes, but there also existed stories about exotic animals such as dragons, unicorns and mermaids.

‘At the time, my teacher taught me to find out where those stories came from. It often turned out that people had good reason to believe that mermaids existed, because that was what was written down by famous Greek or Roman writers.' Around that time, Peter also became interested in modern tall stories. ‘I read the books Broodje Aap by Ethel Portnoy and The Vanishing Hitchhiker by Jan Harold Brunvand, they taught me that this really is a science and I've been working on it ever since.’

Investigating something strange

Only in recent years, Burger has been engaged in factchecking via the internet. ‘We didn’t use to have an internet connection, of course, it only had its breakthrough in the nineties.’ That's when he started using it more and more himself. ‘In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of political propaganda via social media. This includes invented and manipulated stories and edited photographs'. Methods of researching, however, have not changed: 'Someone telling you or showing you something strange and then investigating where it comes from, I already learned about that back then, during my studies.'

Becoming a teacher

Burger now teaches fact-checking to students of the master in Journalism and New Media. The passion to become a teacher was there early on: 'When I was in primary school, I already wanted to become a teacher.' At the time, he wanted to become a teacher of Dutch, but that didn't quite work out as hoped. ‘Wanting to become a teacher of Dutch, I changed my mind about that. I tried to teach, but I couldn't keep order at all and I didn't like it at all.' In the end Peter started to teach adults and students and he liked that a lot better. The most important thing that Burger wants to teach students is to do research. ‘Doing research on the internet, with sources, but also having students visit the experts themselves to talk to them.’

Films full of spectacle

When Burger is not working, he likes to go for a run. He also enjoys watching films or reading novels to relax. ‘I regularly go to the movie theater and prefer to watch those great blockbusters, with a lot of explosions and James Bond-like scenes in them. Occasionally I watch a drama film, with very moving and touching stories, I can enjoy those too', Peter says.

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

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