Fact-Checkers Search for Reality – Even as Partisans Choose to Ignore It

By Chris Adams

What would happen if you told the truth and nobody cared?

For the fact-checkers plying the reality game at The Washington Post and PolitiFact, the last year has been a dizzying rush of fact and fiction, lies and half-truths – and partisan pushback when they write about them.

In a session with National Press Foundation’s Paul Miller fellows, two veteran fact-checkers discussed how they do their jobs, and the reactions they get when they call out somebody for shading the truth.

And they talked about the word “lie.”

Both Glenn Kessler, who writes the “The Fact Checker” column at The Washington Post, and Louis Jacobson, a senior correspondent at PolitiFact, generally avoid that charged word, since it indicates intent.

“Lie means they know what they are saying is false,” Kessler (bio, Twitter) said.

Added Jacobson (bio, Twitter): “We don’t use the term ‘lie’ in typical stories because we don’t know what’s going on in their head.”

A few other tips for fact-checking your own work:

__Aim to use as many neutral sources as possible for assessing the validity of a statement. A hard number is among the easiest things to fact-check. But if you don’t have numbers to check, go to academic experts if possible, or purely non-partisan sources such as the Congressional Budget Office or U.S. Government Accountability Office. Think tanks might have smart experts, but they also often have fixed ideological positions.

__Realize that, in the end, you’ll need to make a judgment. At The Washington Post, they have a “Pinocchio” scale; at PolitiFact, it’s the Truth-O-Meter. Whether something is “mostly false” or “pants-on-fire” false is subjective. There are times when the Post and PolitiFact disagree on whether something is false – or, if so, how egregious a falsehood it is.

__Recognize your job is not to change a politician’s actions (although that sometimes happens). “It’s not intended to be a gotcha,” Kessler said. “I have little expectation of changing political behavior. It’s to inform voters.”

__Accept that whatever you do might fall on unwilling ears. “We’re not advocates or activists,” Jacobson. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince somebody who is unhinged. . . . Most of our time is spent on the two-thirds of people who are open to the idea that fact-checking is valuable.”

Paul Miller 2017 - White House

More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.