How often have you heard a politician say something on TV and thought, “wow, is that really true?”
That is exactly what PolitiFact wants to find out.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the St. Petersburg Times is all about fact-checking and keeping ‘em honest.
Fact-checking isn’t a new concept in journalism, but PolitiFact’s approach to relaying the information to voters is.
PolitiFact rates the accuracy of statements made by national and state political public figures on a scale of ‘True’ to ‘Pants on Fire’ and enables voters to compare the candidates’ scorecards. It also tracks the progress of incumbents on their campaign promises with gauges like the Obameter and the GOP-Pledge-O-Meter.
With 14 months remaining before the 2012 Presidential Election, politicos are making claims left and right. The PolitiFact team, now with one presidential election cycle under its belt, is ready to separate fact from fiction by assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims made by the candidates, political parties, lobbyists, interest groups, pundits and journalists.
PolitiFact won NPF’s Excellence in Online Journalism Award in 2008 and PolitiFact Founder and Editor Bill Adair received a Dirksen Award for Distinguished Coverage of Congress in 1998 and received an Honorable Mention in 2007.
The National Press Foundation’s Gabrielle Gorder visited Adair’s downtown-DC office to learn about PolitiFact’s approach to journalism.
How did the idea for PolitiFact originate?
The epiphany came after the 2004 speech by [former] Sen. Zel Miller (D-GA), who endorsed George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention. He made a lot of claims about John Kerry - particularly about how Kerry had voted on defense bills. He said Kerry was weak on defense because he had voted against a lot of weapon systems. I heard that speech and I thought, “Well, that’s not true. I know how Washington works- the Democrats vote for the Democratic bills, the Republicans vote for the Republican bills and in the process they give each other opportunities to attack [the opposing party] and make these claims.” But even though I was suspicious of the accuracy of what Miller said I did not fact check it, nor did anyone from my newspaper. Every reporter at Madison Square Garden that day let Miller’s comments go unquestioned. If there was any fact-checking of that speech it wasn’t very substantial and it didn’t reach many voters.
So in 2007, when we started planning [The St. Petersburg Times’] campaign coverage for the 2008 election, I proposed that we focus on fact-checking. I had this idea that it would be useful to take advantage of the web and to come up with a way of rating the relative accuracy of statements.
I should probably hang [Miller’s] photograph up in my office.
How does PolitiFact go about fact-checking?
Step one is to select the right fact. Needless to say, we don’t have the staff to check but a small percentage of the factual claims that are made in any given day. So, we want to check the claims that are provocative, the claims that people are curious about we want to check things that make people think, “Is that true?” Every day we have staff members look for claims we can check. They look through transcripts, they look through press releases, campaign videos, TV ads, speeches, anything that might have a factual claim that people are curious about. We also just watch the news to see what provocative claims people are making.
The next step is the reporting. The first thing we always do in our reporting is go to the person who made the statement and ask them for their backup materials. “You made this claim. What facts are you relying on?” Sometimes people cooperate with us and provide a lengthy list of things to back-up their claims and sometimes people don’t return our calls. If they don’t call us back, we are still going to check the facts so it is in their interest to call us back. We then go to original sources. We want to see the roll call vote to see how the person actually voted, we want to see the transcript of the floor debate; it’s not enough to just look at how a reporter characterized something. In doing so, we sometimes find things that our political journalism colleagues missed.
In one case, the Florida Democratic Party relied on a news story that quoted a Republican candidate saying something about the foreclosure crisis but when we dug in and actually went to the transcript we found that the candidate had been quoted out of context. We want to talk to experts who are independent or not allied with one side or the other as much as possible- although that is very hard because in Washington and in America today so much of the think tank world and the experts on a topic are either conservative or liberal and it can be difficult to find someone who is truly non-partisan.
How do you avoid selection bias?
There are many things that go into deciding what we are going to choose. We try to be timely, we try to stay on top of the news and we try to have balance so we check people from both parties. That can be challenging though, because if you have eight voices speaking up in a Republican primary and only one Democratic incumbent – naturally you have eight times the number of statements being made on the Republican side than on the Democratic side. We try to check roughly the same number of claims by Democrats as we do for Republicans, but we have to go where the claims are and lately there have been more made by Republicans. In terms of avoiding selection bias, I think the key is to be guided by what serves the reader. Once you get past claims selections, our fact-check process is entirely driven by journalistic and independent assessment.
What role do you hope PolitiFact will play in the election cycle?
I hope we can reach as many voters as possible. I think that PolitiFact empowers democracy- to sound a little lofty- because we are helping voters make sense of the political debate. I hope [voters] will use it as information to help them make decisions about their candidates and about how America is governed. American politics today is the Battle of the Talking Point- both parties are hurling talking points at each other and the American people are left kind of dazed and confused. PolitiFact is the antidote to that. We are going to help people know what’s true and what’s not and what’s half true…to help them distill the truth and from it become a better educated actor in a democracy.
How are you reaching out to voters?
We are expanding. We now have the largest fact-checking effort, probably in the history of journalism. We have more than 30 reporters and editors around the country who are doing PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter articles either for our national site or for our state websites. We are reaching far more people as we expand to more and more states because the state reporters are doing their own fact-checks on state and local politicians and then they also carry our work on national politicians.
We are also creating the PolitiFact news service, which is going to be a wire service that we will make available to newspapers and other print publications. Obviously our work is now on the web and it also appears in the newspapers of our ten partners in nine states [Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin]. For a very reasonable cost we will make all of our work available so that newspapers can put it in their daily papers and so that people can see the truth-o-meter items from now through the election.
What about the business aspect?
Politifact has researched different kinds of business and development models and the St. Petersburg Times has been willing to try new things and let us innovate and look for different sources of revenue. The initial model for PolitiFact was just to have PolitiFact be a feature of the paper and have a website supported by advertising. In addition to the ad revenue that we’re getting from the website, we have found other streams of income. We have a mobile app; the first fact checking app ever created for the iPhone, iPad and Android and we make money from that. We will have revenue from the PolitiFact news service. Finally, there’s the revenue that we make from our partnerships with those ten [state newspapers].
PolitiFact was recently featured on ‘The Daily Show’…
Politifact had been mentioned once before on ‘The Daily Show’. ‘Saturday Night Live’ did a skit on Obama that made fun of him breaking his promises. So we did an article the next day where we noted that the promises that Saturday Night referred to and how we had actually rated them on our feature the Obama-meter which rates the progress of Obama’s campaign promises. So, we did an article that said “Hey SNL here’s how the promises really stack up.” We thought it was a useful way of providing information for Saturday Night Live viewers. I then did a segment about it on Wolf Blitzer’s Show on CNN. Jon Stewart took that segment of me on ‘The Situation Room’ and made fun of it portraying it as CNN fact-checking ‘Saturday Night Live’. So that was actually our first time being featured on ‘The Daily Show’.
The most recent time started off with a fact-check that we did about Jon Stewart in which we fact-checked a claim he made about Fox News viewers- a claim that we rated False. The next night Stewart went on the air and noted that we had rated him false and he apologized, saying he accepted the judgment and apologized for it and said not do so would be wrong. Then he turned it into a criticism of Fox News by noting more than a dozen claims that we had checked of things people had said on the Fox News Channel and noted that we had rated them either ‘False’ or ‘Pants on Fire.’ The segment was quite funny. It was an interesting showcase of our work in that on the one hand we had rated Stewart false and he took responsibility for that and then he turned it around and selectively highlighted statements that portrayed Fox News as being irresponsible. The one thing Stewart didn’t do was point-out the items where we had rated Fox statements as True. So you could say he gave a one-sided story but that’s all part of the fun [of the political comedy show].
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Fox News' False Statements|
Did you see an uptick in traffic after that?
Absolutely. We had lots of traffic. You could see the spikes as the replayed ‘The Daily Show’ throughout the night and into the next day and I think they replayed it the next week. You would suddenly see this huge spike in traffic.
You were also featured on The Colbert Report along with Jake Tapper of ABC.
The Colbert segment was actually a year earlier. It was tied to the fact-checking we do with ABC of their show ‘This Week’- that was back when Jake Tapper was hosting it. I’m happy to get out and talk about our work- I’m so proud of what we’ve created from scratch.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Sunday Morning Fact-Checking - Jake Tapper & Bill Adair|
PolitiFact continues to fact check statements made on ABC’s ‘This Week,’ now hosted by Christiane Amanpour. Click here to view how ‘This Week’ guests fare on the Truth-O-Meter.
Do you see PolitiFact as a model for the future of journalism?
I don’t know if it’s the future of journalism but I certainly a future model of journalism…I think there are a couple of ways we have broken new ground. One is the way in which we publish. We have redefined the device for storytelling. It’s not a traditional news story that we are publishing. It’s not a blog post. A PolitiFact truth-o-meter item collectively allows you to assess political rhetoric. You can go to Michelle Bachmann’s PolitiFact report card and you can see what her rating is and how it compares to Ron Paul’s and because we tally our ratings you can see that Michelle Bachmann has a lot more False and Pants-on-Fire ratings than Paul does. Now that can be valuable information if you are a Republican voter perhaps.
Likewise, we’ve created the Obama-meter and other campaign promise meters that work in the same way to help you assess whether your elected officials accomplished what they said they would do. By rating each promise individually you get an article about that particular promise but you also can put that in the greater list of promises and know overall how your mayor has done at keeping his or her promises.
At the root of it all is accountability. We are holding elected officials accountable for what they say and what they do and we’re doing it in a webby 21st century way.
PolitiFact also rates high profile journalists, moderators and pundits. Is that a way to also keep journalists accountable?
We resisted suggestions from readers that we fact check pundits and talk show hosts for a long time. I thought, “Well, we don’t have time to do that,” We didn’t- we didn’t have the staff. “We are going to fact check the candidates the elected officials.” But I came to realize that Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are at least as important in the national discourse as a presidential candidate is. In many ways they are more important because they are around longer and they have such a large audience. So we began fact-checking pundits and we have a page on our site devoted to pundits’ coverage. We fact-check anybody from an editorial in a newspaper to a talk show host to a radio host. Interestingly, if you compare the accuracy of pundit claims to the accuracy of everybody overall on PolitiFact, the pundit record is not so good.
Do you ever get responses from the people that you fact check?
It varies. Sometimes they’ll trump it when we rate them true- or mostly true. Sometimes they’ll acknowledge their errors as Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann have all done. Other times they’ll disagree strongly. Rachel Maddow and Arianna Huffington have both challenged our ratings.
How can journalists under the tight deadlines of a 24-hour news cycle ensure solid fact-checking?
Fact-checking shouldn’t just be for fact-checkers. All journalists should question things they hear. But it’s understandable that if you’re on the campaign trail and you’re trying to file a story out of an event that you’re not going to do a complete fact-check of every claim that the candidate makes. That’s where PolitiFact will come in.
Earlier Blog Posts
Reporting From the Edge of Retirement
September 15, 2011
Bringing A World of Knowledge to Retirement Reporting
September 12, 2011
Knowledge of Health Care Terms an Important Issue for…
September 9, 2011
Mention NPF and Get Free Credentials for ‘Social…
August 25, 2011
How The Baltimore Sun’s John Fritze Frames the…
August 25, 2011