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The rise — and limits — of political fact-checking

Traffic is just one reason why Star Tribune Editorial Page Editor Scott Gillespie says he’d like to see the paper expand its fact­checking footprint. 

The presence of Donald Trump has given Politifact plenty of fodder.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.)