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From AJR,   December/January 2011  issue

Students Scrutinizing Politicians   

A J-school’s plunge into the fact-checking business.  Posted:  Thu, Dec. 9 2010


By Molly Klinefelter
Molly Klinefelter (mklinefelter@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

A" toothache could get you a recommendation for marijuana – a bad back, lumbago, wearing high heels all day," was the comment Republican Bill Montgomery, a candidate for Maricopa County, Arizona, attorney, made about Proposition 203, which requires Arizona to adopt a regulatory system for the distribution of medical marijuana.

Arizona State University undergrad Vaughn Hillyard had been following Proposition 203 – but not on his own time. Hillyard was an intern for AZ Fact Check, a new program created to evaluate statements made by politicians.

When Hillyard heard the claim, red flags went up. "Vaughn and I liked this statement because it went to the heart of the debate about the measure – whether medical marijuana could be abused," says John Leach, AZ Fact Check's student coordinator.

The coordinator and the intern then looked more closely at the statement's wording, and "the question essentially became whether or not 'a bad back, lumbago, wearing high heels all day' could result in the severe and chronic pain required for a patient to qualify to receive medical marijuana if the measure passed," according to Leach, who is an adjunct faculty member at ASU and a veteran Arizona journalist.

Leach set Hillyard on the case, and the sophomore went into action, examining Proposition 203 and interviewing sources, including the director of the state Department of Health Services and the executive director of the state Medical Board.

After two weeks, Hillyard was able to compile an analysis concluding thata physician who diagnoses someone as having severe and chronic pain can recommend medical marijuana. Therefore, Montgomery's claim was true, although applying the ambiguous phrase of "serious and chronic pain" proves to be tricky.

AZ Fact Check – a joint venture by ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and three Phoenix news outlets owned by Gannett: the Arizona Republic, azcentral.com and 12 News – made sure claims like this one no longer went unchecked during election season. The program launched in July and published 136 fact checks by the time the polls closed November 2.

Unlike the St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact, which uses only professional journalists to research politicians' claims (see ""The Fact-Checking Explosion""), AZ Fact Check relies on a mix of journalism students and reporters from the Republic and 12 News. And the pioneering fact-checking site FactCheck.org is moving in the same direction. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, is moving its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Penn's Philadelphia campus, which will allow students to do much of the fact-checking.

Cronkite journalism students "are required to do internships before they graduate, and we thought this would be a great learning experience for them," says Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite School. AZ Fact Check, bearing the slogan "Keeping Arizona Honest," allows students to fulfill that internship requirement, which calls for about 12 to 15 hours a week, and get paid at the same time. In addition to receiving direction from Leach, each intern is assigned professional mentors from the Republic and 12 News, Phoenix's NBC affiliate. AZ Fact Check will investigate claims year-round, but the pace slows down at the end of election season, so the internships wrapped up in November. They will resume in January.

Interns at AZ Fact Check study politicians' statements in advertisements, speeches, campaign materials and social networking posts to assess their authenticity. Sometimes members of the public suggest claims they feel might be bogus and should be scrutinized.

"We pick those [claims] that we feel would be of most value to voters," Leach says. "The interns and I then brainstorm how the statement can be checked – what documents or sources would shed light on whether it is true or false or somewhere in between."

During this fall's campaign, a team of seven interns carried out the investigative work, a process that can be quick and straightforward or take several weeks. All of the findings were published on azcentral.com, and select stories ran in the Republic and aired on 12 News.

"It's a very intensive reporting experience because [interns] have to dig and dig to get at the truth, and they have to learn about everything from the federal deficit to the nitty-gritty of immigration law to figure out what that is," Gilger says. "It really teaches them the challenges of accountability journalism and the critical importance of accuracy."

Gilger personally recruited Hillyard for AZ Fact Check, while other students were screened by Leach. Even though he is a broadcast student, Hillyard enjoys the in-depth reporting that's more typically found in print, and would like to eventually cover Arizona politics.

"The process is fun because you're trying to discuss the issue from both sides and trying to get [a source's] honest take of how they interpret the different measures in laws, and sometimes you have two sides in the campaigning, obviously, that are polar opposites," Hillyard says. "Sometimes it's difficult to decipher which side is telling the truth, and then it's our job to go and dig a little deeper."

Each fact-check has the same format: The reporter outlines the issue, spells out the comment in question as well as who said it and where, then draws conclusions. Each claim is rated on a five-star scale, ranging from false to true. Claims can also be rated as inconclusive or unsupported.

When Arizona state Rep. Rae Waters (D) stated she was the only candidate in her race with experience in education, AZ Fact Check was quick to call her out. Turns out her opponent, Republican Bob Robson, is a professor at ASU. When an AZ Fact Checker informed Waters of this, she quickly modified her claim, asserting she was the only candidate with K through 12 education experience.

Nicole Carroll, executive editor of the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, suggested launching AZ Fact Check while brainstorming with other editors on ways to better cover the 2010 election. "Watchdog journalism is our highest priority," she says. "I suggested this idea as a way to watchdog political claims and advertisements. We chose to work with the Cronkite School because they have a track record of providing us with responsible, thoughtful journalism interns."

Carroll "walked into my office one day and said, 'You're going to love this idea,'" says Gilger, a former deputy managing editor at the Republic. "I did."

The Republic constructed an AZ Fact Check widget, so other Web sites, bloggers and avid followers can add a stream of fact-checks to their own sites. And it's planning on looking into other ways to extend its reach, including mobile applications.

"I think this kind of fact-checking is a public service for voters," Leach says, "and I would encourage other news organizations to set up similar programs."