AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2010

Facing the Truth-O-Meter   

PolitiFact’s new Florida operation checks out the veracity of local pols’ assertions.

By Abby Brownback
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Every elected official in America ought to face the Truth-O-Meter," says PolitiFact creator and Editor Bill Adair.

On March 1, PolitiFact launched its second state spinoff in Florida as the Sunshine State's races for governor and U.S. Senate begin to heat up. The St. Petersburg Times-owned Web site has been scrutinizing and evaluating the public pronouncements of national politicians since 2007.

"It's a really good match for Florida politics, and it's the right time," says Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of the Miami Herald, the Times' PolitiFact partner in Florida.

PolitiFact, which has followed FactCheck.org's example to spearhead what Adair calls "a whole new form of journalism," scours interviews, press releases, advertisements, pundits' comments and even chain e-mails for claims by candidates and officials that make its staffers and readers wonder, "Is that true?" Writers then break apart a claim into elements that can be fact-checked and turn to original sources for context, says Amy Hollyfield, a PolitiFact writer and the Times' government and politics editor. The parts of the claim are analyzed and evaluated for their level of truth; the writer and a panel of three editors then award the overall assertion one of six ratings on the Truth-O-Meter, ranging from "True" to the dreaded "Pants on Fire."

This type of fact-check journalism is a way of "marrying old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting with extensive transparency with who our sources are, and combine those two things with a level of authority and credibility that allows us to make the call," says Times Executive Editor Neil Brown.

PolitiFact Florida's work is published on a state page on the PolitiFact Web site and in both of the papers.

Sites like PolitiFact have become "the Google on politics," says Tom Fiedler, a former Herald executive editor and now dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "It's a reflection of the way people have turned to the Web to answer just about any question on any issue."

Over the years, news organizations have sorted out the validity of politicians' claims, but too often their coverage consisted of allegations and rebuttals, without a conclusion telling readers where the facts lay. The fact-checking movement began in earnest with the 2003 launch of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Brooks Jackson, the site's director, says the initial focus was the 2004 election, expanding later to cover Supreme Court nomination battles, Social Security debates and the last two national elections.

"I thought our main audience would be other journalists, the sort of people who race around covering campaign speeches and don't have time to drill down into the often very complicated public policy issues the candidates are talking about," Jackson says. But the site quickly found a public following, seeing 100,000 to 200,000 visitors per day at the height of the 2004 election.

"With 24-hour cable, the Internet, these chain e-mails, people are just awash in bullshit, and they tend to believe it," Jackson says. "Mainstream media has not evolved to the point where they're pushing back near strong enough."

Adair recognized this as well. He says he put together PolitiFact in 2007 "out of my guilt. We in the news media had not done a good job of telling voters what was true and what was not."

On the state level, the process and the standards are the same, but more localized fact-check journalism can highlight specific regional issues and lesser-known candidates. "It's really an accountability factor that didn't exist in Florida before we came on the scene," Hollyfield says.

State and local politicians, who tend to speak more off-the-cuff and are not as accustomed to being called to account for the truth of their statements as national players, are "a little jarred" by PolitiFact Florida's coverage, Brown says. "It's shining a light more brightly on state and local politicians than they're used to."

In what Brown calls the "contact sport" of Florida politics, PolitiFact Florida is providing a way for the Poynter Institute-owned Times and McClatchy-owned Herald — which in 2008 merged their bureaus in Tallahassee, the state capital — to expand coverage on key issues, such as the economy, growth, higher education and the environment.

And in "a massive election year," PolitiFact Florida "becomes a mecca for readers who want to know what's really true," Gyllenhaal says. "Florida is a state that is particularly affected by the question of 'What is true?'"

Sorting truth from the not-so-true is difficult in states like Florida, he adds. A large population and massive spending on campaigns mean Floridians need a place to go for an independent analysis of the facts. "The whole idea," Adair says, "is to empower voters, to give them the information they need to make judgments about a campaign."

Florida is the right place to pioneer a national program on a state level, Fiedler says, because it is a "fairly rough mirror of the nation as a whole." If PolitiFact Florida is successful, other state partnerships likely will be, too. "Florida in many ways remains the bellwether state for the country," says Fiedler, who covered politics for the Herald for many years. "Demographically, politically and in many other ways, it remains an accurate predictor of trends across the country."

Both nationally and in Florida, PolitiFact investigates assertions that readers suggest they would like to see fact-checked, but Adair does not foresee using readers to help with the actual research and writing. "When you open up that type of crowdsourcing, you run the risk that passionate people of both sides will use it for political posturing," he says. "This is one area where professional journalists can provide what the people need, which is an unbiased, professional assessment of what's true."

The Times would like to expand PolitiFact's reach beyond Florida and Texas, where it debuted a partnership with the Austin American-Statesman in January. Brown says the Times is discussing alliances with about six publications in other states. He hopes to announce one or two in this spring.

"This could be done in any state," Jackson says. "All you need is a few good, seasoned reporters who've been lied to a few times."

State branches of PolitiFact allow media partners to publish their content on a national site as well as through their own outlet, to sell advertisements and earn revenue from the national site, and to boost their traffic, Adair says. In Austin, he trained state reporters in PolitiFact's style and standards; now the Statesman's editors manage the coverage. In Florida, both Times and Herald reporters contribute to the project. Brown says the partnership, which was a logical extension of the merger of the papers' Tallahassee bureaus, gives the Times "more reporting heft and greater prominence in South Florida."

This prominence, though, sometimes translates into complaints. When Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Maurice Ferre received a "barely true" rating, he wrote to PolitiFact Florida to contest it. "That's going to happen more and more," Hollyfield says, "as you check people who you see every day."

"We think of ourselves like a referee," Adair says. "Our goal is to be an impartial referee and make an unbiased call every time. [But] anytime you are acting as a referee, some people are going to be unhappy with your calls."