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From AJR,   June/July 2010  issue

A Cram Course in Fact-Checking    

WEB EXCLUSIVE
Arizona State journalism students check out the veracity of the claims of the state’s political candidates.


By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

For seven Arizona State University journalism students, this semester got real, in a hurry.

They still have classes, tests and roommates to worry about, but they also have a big heaping portion of Arizona politics on their plates.

ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has teamed up with the Arizona Republic and 12 News, the newscast of NBC's Phoenix affiliate, to start AZ Fact Check, a venture whose mission is to assess the accuracy of claims made by Arizona political candidates.

The site launched August 16, just in time to cover the primary races on August 24 and the general election November 2. The service is modeled after other political fact-checking sites, such as the pioneering FactCheck.org, an initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.com.

Both the students and professional journalists from the Republic and 12 News research statements in speeches, campaign ads and brochures as well as on Web sites (and anywhere else for that matter). Then they report what's accurate, what's not and everything in between. The statements are rated on a five-star scale, one star being a load of bologna and five stars being the honest truth. Each report is categorized by race, candidate and subject and presented in an easy-to-use format. There's also a place on the site where viewers can suggest topics they'd like to see covered. The content of AZ Fact Check is printed in the Republic and aired on 12 News.

So when sophomore Vaughn Hillyard is in class and his phone vibrates with what is hopefully a return call from a politician, does he sneak out to the "bathroom" to answer? Or does he wait till he's back in his dorm room to call back and get the much-needed comment?

While sticky situations like this may be frustrating for Hillyard and his colleagues, they're paying off--literally. The students get $9 an hour, working 13 to 15 hours a week, and they receive academic credit. And, more important, the students are getting a chance at real-life reporting under the guidance of experienced journalists.

"It's taking the stuff you learned in the classroom out into the real world," Hillyard says. "This internship is everything that I could have ever asked for."

Cronkite School Associate Dean Kristin Gilger thinks the skills the students develop while checking the facts will be 'highly important" to them. "It's not just what appears in print or on TV, it's how to deal at this level with people, how to get information. They're really learning skills, and they're getting great clips. It's very high level, so if they can do this, they can do an awful lot else."

The students work under the direction of their editor, John Leach, a Cronkite school adjunct professor and a veteran Arizona journalist. In addition, each student is assigned a mentor at either the Republic or 12 News, so that the students have someone to go to if they're having trouble contacting a source or they're shaky on a complicated campaign topic.

Even though the site only launched a few weeks ago, the students have been working since July 13, when they began training. ASU faculty and editors from the Republic and 12 News did intensive coaching with the students on the ins and outs of politics, how to fact-check, how to find sources of information and much more, says Nicole Carroll, executive editor of the Republic and azcentral.com. Students met their professional mentors at a lunch meeting before receiving their first assignments.

Leach says the students are already benefitting from the experience. He enjoys his role as editor, as well as the perks of being outside the normal classroom. "One of the things that was appealing as a professor was I have no book, no quizzes to prepare," he says.

The editing process for the site is rigorous, Carroll says. After the students file their stories, Leach gives them an initial edit. Then they are dispatched to the Republic, where they are scrutinized by two editors before they are posted and published. "Above all, we want it right, because we're trying to do a service," Carroll says.

The idea for AZ Fact Check emerged from a brainstorming session at the Republic about what the paper might do differently this political season. In April, Carroll approached 12 News and ASU about a possible partnership. Gilger, a former Republic deputy managing editor, says Carroll told her, "I have an idea you would like," and proceeded to lay it out. Gilger says she loved the project from the get-go. "This was a way to do a political fact-check solely about Arizona," she says. "It's a way to really help people make decisions."

While ASU picked the instructor and the students, 12 News and the Republic, both of which are owned by Gannett, came up with funding for the project. "Where the university has helped this process is in the grunt work associated with this process, creating the raw material," says Mark Casey, 12 News vice president and news director. "The university's been critical to making this happen."

The site is already creating a stir among the politicians. Carroll says that several candidates vowed to change their claims because of the findings of AZ Fact Check.

The site's early efforts have also attracted some fan mail. One e-mail from a happy reader says, "It's about time someone started checked the facts and presenting them to the public. THANK YOU!!!"

Hillyard says he's fortunate he got the opportunity to participate. He grew up in Phoenix interested in Arizona politics, but with only one full year of college under his belt--most of the AZ Fact Check students are upperclassmen--he didn't have a ton of experience in political reporting.

"I think the public deserves to know the truth behind the dealings of government," he says. "This is the perfect internship for me... Sure, it may help with the résumé...But right now I'm just living in this moment, enriching my knowledge of politics and the issues."