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The rise — and limits — of political fact-checking

The rise — and limits — of political fact-checking
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The presence of Donald Trump has given Politifact plenty of fodder.

For a variety of reasons, most of them obvious, fact-­checking — i.e. both reporting and making an overt judgment on the accuracy of things politicians say — is popular in 2016.

The grand daddy of fact­-checking services, if that can be an accurate description of something only nine years old, is PolitiFact, based out of St. Petersburg, Florida’s Poynter Institute. (Poynter owns and operates The Tampa Bay Times.) 

“We’ve had very strong response this year,” says Poynter’s Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact. “In March, for example, we surpassed the number of page views we had in all of 2015, and while our top page view month is still October of 2012, numbers two-through-twelve have all been over the past 11 months.”

And while the presence of Donald Trump has given Politifact plenty of fodder, “There was also deep interest during the Democratic primaries as well,” said Sharockman. “But there’s no question [Trump] has raised the public’s interest in fact­-checking.”

This past winter, the Star Tribune signed on for what can be called PolitiFact’s “newswire” service and to date has run roughly a dozen pieces assessing statements made by various national political candidates.

Scott Gillespie, the Strib’s editorial page editor, is credited for pushing to bring PolitiFact to his section. “I’ve always admired [Poynter’s] work,” he says, “and this season in particular I find readers are pretty hungry for fact-­checking.” 

He says the current plan is to continue using PolitiFact pieces through the November election and then “take another look.” PolitiFact also offers a separate service, PunditFact, fact­-checking the army of talking heads littering the media landscape. Gillespie says he likes that, too. But it’s one thing at a time. 

Like most of PolitiFact’s “partners” the Strib is paying a modest fee to cherry pick from work done by Poynter’s staff. (Sharockman says business is so good he’s hired three new reporters with plans for a fourth.)

But there is also a higher “tier,” if you will, of PolitiFact. That is what the Gannett-owned Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been doing since 2010. Their arrangement, championed by then Managing Editor George Stanley (now the paper’s top editor and Senior VP), involved shifting around two and a half newsroom positions to produce PolitiFact Wisconsin, an effort which has now produced over 1,100 “checks” on Wisconsin politicians, among them controversial Gov. Scott Walker, who, like Trump, has given the J-­S team plenty to work with. 

Under Poynter’s arrangement with so-called full partners, the work of the Journal Sentinel team is available to PolitiFact nationally. (Poynter sends in a training team to get papers up to speed with their version of the art of fact­-checking.) But the Journal Sentinel is free to sell its Wisconsin-­focused stories to any publication within the state’s borders, producing a (very) small revenue stream.

According to Greg Borowski, Deputy Managing Editor at the J­-S, the paper is currently making its PolitiFact work available to all the Gannett-­owned sister papers in Wisconsin and has cut pay­-to-­play deals with papers in Janesville and Kenosha for access to its work.

As you might expect, all three men describe reader interest in fact­-checking as “high.” 

“Every time we run one,” says Gillespie, “we get a lot of traffic and a lot of comments.”

Both Gillespie and Doug Tice, the paper’s commentary editor, mentioned the substantial traffic driven by two graphically-enhanced PolitiFact pieces on candidate truthfulness that were assembled by David Banks, the Strib’s assistant commentary editor. “We did the first presentation in March (the one that produced an atmospheric number of hits, I assume because of social-media sharing) and an updated version in April,” said Banks. “I actually think our online presentation of it was rather discombobulated. It worked better in print.” 

Traffic is a good reason why Gillespie says he’d like to expand the Strib’s fact-­checking footprint to something like PolitiFact Wisconsin. Unfortunately, at the moment he has neither the bodies nor budget to make it happen.

“I’d love to be able to do that. I don’t know if it’s a [full-time employee] or not. My guess is it is. But whether it’s staffed by hiring or reassigning, that’s a newsroom call,” he says. “And despite what people think, we really are two separate entities.” He adds, “It is time­ consuming to do it well. It’s not the sort of thing you can hand to someone and expect them to do part-time.”

Part of the conversation with Poynter’s Sharockman involved ideas for the next stage in PolitiFact evolution, namely to TV. Currently, he says, there are no television stations in Minnesota signed up for PolitiFact’s newswire service. (WCCO-­TV’s “Reality Check” is a station-­generated segment.) 

Poynter currently doesn’t have what might be a popular feature, namely a video newswire service, capable of producing short, broadcast­quality PolitiFact segments for sale to local TV stations, but he is intrigued by the concept.

“Knowing what I do about the market up there, I think Minnesota needs to have a bigger and more important role in fact­checking. I’d really like to see the Star Tribune, or someone, take partnership to the next level. But,” echoing Gillespie, “you have to be willing to devote resources to do this right. A single, difficult fact­check can take one to three days.”

(MPR’s now dormant fact­checking service, called PoliGraph, ceased operation last summer after it laid off its author, Catharine Richert, who had experience with PolitiFact before moving to Minnesota. MPR has never had a coherent answer for why Richert was let go or why PoliGraph wasn’t at least handed-off to a different reporter.)

Any time there’s a discussion of news organizations launching (or borrowing) a fact­checking service someone cracks a joke along the lines of, “Checking facts? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place?”

Go ahead, laugh. But it does raise the question of when and why fact-­checking became an extra­-journalistic function.

The full discussion of that question is of only limited interest to most mainstream journalists, because long­-accepted standards separate reporting from, as Gillespie puts it, “making a judgment.” The basic news story is reported and edited up the point where enough facts are gathered to allow, as the explanation goes, “the reader to arrive at their own conclusions.” Judgments, putting a name to the facts, are assigned to the purview of columnists and opinion pages, and there’s no reason to expect a change anytime soon, even for newspapers with diminished staffs and news holes. 

“There’s a role for making calls on things politicians say, and we’re happy to do it,” says Gillespie of the opinion pages. “But would I like to do more? Absolutely. What the Journal Sentinel is doing, regularly fact­checking politicians in their own state, interests me a lot. I think something like that would be very popular with our readers. But it’s not my decision. You should ask Rene [Sanchez, the Strib’s top editor].” (Sanchez did not respond to a request for comment before this column went up; will update if he gets back to me.)

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Comments (10)

My favorite fact checking site

is FactCheck.org, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
It's at http://www.factcheck.org

From their Web site:
"We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels."

Light at the end of the tunnel for the news biz?

I was not aware of Politifact or FactCheck.org and will be checking out both. It makes a lot of sense to coordinate this task on the national and state levels.

One can understand that fact-checking everything said by someone like Trump would be a full-time job. Seem like emphasizing the fact-checking role might be a way for newspapers and other media to draw in a larger audience in this age when there's so much information flying about. Give up the restaurant and movie reviews, even the pundit-columnists and focus on what was once part of the original mission of journalism.

Of course, I assume that people want to know what's accurate . . .

My favorite fact checker was FBI director

He seemed to fact check Hillary Clinton and came up with a "pants on fire" 5 alarm blaze. Never good when FBI director is fact checking the Democratic presidential candidate in front of a congressional committee.

You're seeing what you want to see,

Comey did NOT in fact accuse Clinton of lying; in fact quite the opposite.
What he said was that while she did not break any laws, she did show poor judgement.
A 'pants on fire' rating from FactCheck denotes a statement that is clearly and documentably contrary to know facts. They have stated that Trump is setting new records in this category:
most recently http://www.factcheck.org/2016/07/trumps-fanciful-iran-negotiation/

I guess you must have missed the whole presentation

...by Mr. Comey.

Your comment, "You're seeing what you want to see" appears to be a projection. Perhaps you think Clinton's denial yesterday on the News Hour, in which she basically said Comey was wrong, is worth repeating. That one had all the commentariat, even Clinton supporters, shaking their heads

Finally, the Clinton camp love nothing more than changing the subject to Donald Trump when their own candidate's flaws are exposed. Of course Comey did not literally call her a "liar" - it would have been rude, and besides, he didn't need to.

For me, they are both terrible candidates - in different ways, for different reasons. This election, and it's candidates, are dragging us down to new lows.

Yet Again?

Does this have anything at all to do with news organizations doing fact checking?

Short answer: It doesn't. And please spare yourself the effort of a tortured grousing about how we would know the truth if the liberal media were doing its job (the conservative media, it seems, is absolved from responsibility here). This story had nothing to do with Hilary Clinton.

"Sticking to the point" is an important lesson for everyone.

Un-Answered Questions On PolitGraph's Demise Haunt MPR

MPR management's refusal to provide answers to the news media, as well as the listening and reading public they claim is their raison d'etre, is such an obvious double standard it makes life difficult for the journalists who work there and the citizens which demand a higher standard of authenticity from public institutions.

Thank you Brian for including in this story Catharine Richert's still unexplained termination and the void left at MPR in their news coverage. MPR's management decision to eliminate staffing to provide the systematic fact- checking of the pronouncements by politicians and public institutions is still shocking to citizens who expect MPR, and all serious news media, to do more than issue reports based on "news" releases.

Now would be a good time for MPR management to examine their conscience and redeem themselves, given that are more than four months left in the 2016 campaign season which demands daily fact-checking.

What's a "basic news" story?

We need fact-checkers because our news sources do not check the facts they include in ostensible "news stories." That very much includes the Star Tribune, which frequently just reiterates a press release or a police sheet and lets it go at that--don't want to conclude anything, do we? (How is a fact a "fact" unless someone has concluded that there is truth to it? Talk about obfuscation, boys!)

I find that attitude cheap and unprofessional. It takes time to go beyond the words that are fed to reporters at a press conference or in a press release, and our local newspaper is unwilling to permit its reporters the time and resources to really go after the news. It costs money, hurts the Bottom Line for investors or owner (in this case Glen Taylor). So they have to outsource real reporting, and if their budget doesn't include regular feeds of Politifact or some other reputable fact-checking agency that DOES spend the necessary money to dig up true facts, well, then, we citizens have only the [OMG] worldwide web to use.

Politifact on Clinton

I'm very much not a supporter of Ms Clinton, but Friday's Strib carried a Politifact review of her claims regarding the emails that I found quite shoddy.

The review concerned her apparently numerous statements that none of the emails that she moved through her non-classified email system "were marked classified." To my reading, Politifact noted that, per the FBI review, two emails out of a total numbering in the tens of thousands in fact were marked confidential by, as I understand it, a "c" within the body of these emails that denotes certain classified content, a marking so inobtrusive that, I believe, even Mr Comey agreed might reasonably be overlooked. Nevertheless, this was sufficient for Politifact to trumpet Ms Clinton's statements as "FALSE."

Having triumphed on this hypertechnicality, Politifact then spent a great deal of time also noting that a number of the emails were marked as classified subsequent to Ms Clinton's handling of them, and that a number were not marked but in the opinion of some should have been, all of which clearly was quite irrelevant to the hyperliteral ground on which Politifact had staked its finding, namely whether emails, contrary to Ms Clinton's assurances, were "marked" confidential.

Again, on this topic I'm not a partisan either way, but I found Politifact's analysis to be not at all sober and quite tendentious.

"Just enough facts"

-as if ALL the facts would get in the way of a good judgement session.

Facts are essential to reporting and fact checking is the media's job. Reporting that Trump has said something and then showing the response of people who dispute him is not enough. Reporting the truth of ALL the statements made by either side is what we rely on the media for -otherwise what is its purpose?

I get that controversy sells ads, but can't we at least have this basic function of news?