AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2011

The Fact-Checking Explosion   

In a bitter political landscape marked by rampant allegations of questionable credibility, more and more news outlets are launching truth-squad operations. Posted: Thu, Dec. 2 2010

By Cary Spivak
Contributing writer Cary Spivak (cspivak01@gmail.com) is an investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, focusing on business issues. He explored the question of when journalists should share information with law enforcement authorities in AJR's Spring 2012 issue.     

Gib Heinz was clearly annoyed when the Seattle Times launched its Truth Needle, a fact-checking initiative that seeks to separate truth from fiction in political claims.

"I'm absolutely stunned by the introduction of this new feature," the Freeland, Washington, resident wrote in a letter published by the paper on August 22. "This 'Truth Needle' is going to decide whether the claims are true or false? News reporting is reporting the news and facts and letting me decide what is true or false."

Sorry, Mr. Heinz, but you'd better get used to it. Not only does it appear that fact-checking operations are here to stay, but they are growing rapidly. Just this year, at least two dozen media organizations or universities launched or joined fact-checking operations. Some are flying solo; some are joining the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact network; and others are forming new cooperatives, such as AZ Fact Check, a partnership announced in August that includes the Arizona Republic, Phoenix's 12 News and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

In each case reporters are leaving the comfort of the press box, where they watch and report on the action, and are getting onto the field to play referee.

"It's a complete reversal of traditional journalism," says Jim Tharpe, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's PolitiFact Georgia.

The fact-checking explosion may have begun in 2004 after the media's initially flat-footed response to the attacks on Sen. John Kerry by the group that called itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (see Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth," December 2004/January 2005). But the just-completed 2010 election featured fact-checking on steroids. A bitterly divided electorate and a political landscape replete with high-decibel claims and counterclaims on cable television and echoing throughout the blogosphere have made neutral arbiters more crucial than ever.

"I never thought journalism would be like this," says Bill Adair, the St. Petersburg Times' Washington, D.C., bureau chief and editor of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking operation that is exporting its approach to local news operations across the country. "It's just the right formula for the new era."

PolitiFact and other fact-checking ventures are filling a void in political reporting, says longtime Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder. "So often in the past, the voters have been left with nothing but a 'he said, she said' there was no third source with an objective view," Broder says, asserting that reporters are the people best equipped to serve as the arbiters of truth.

"'Who are the alternatives?' is the question," says Broder, who has covered politics for the Post since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. "In this respect, the press is becoming a little more aggressive, and that's good."

Politicians, many of whom may despise the idea of having their every word not to mention every advertisement scrutinized by reporters, are taking notice of the fact-checking teams. "The candidates hate these," says Rick Wiley, a national political consultant. "It's hard for them, because they see it as people coming out and attacking them personally."

Especially when they're called liars a charge that could easily be picked up and ballyhooed by an opponent in an attack ad.

"What I've heard from folks running for office is that they don't want a 'Pants on Fire,'" says Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in political advertising. "Pants on Fire" is the worst rating doled out by PolitiFact, reserved for assertions that make a ridiculous claim and are clearly false. Goldstein admits being surprised that some politicians have even changed the wording of statements in response to criticism from a fact-checker. "If you had asked me before, I would have been dismissive about the impact of these," Goldstein says. "But I have been hearing some anecdotal evidence that some politicians know that it's in place and are reacting."

In September, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact Wisconsin gave Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, a "Pants on Fire" rating for erroneously boasting on his campaign Web site that violent crime had fallen 20 percent during his tenure. The following day, Barrett, who went on to lose the governor's race, corrected the claim. "If I had read it I would have caught it," the mayor told the paper. The Journal Sentinel, where I work, is one of eight newspapers to buy the PolitiFact license for use in their home markets.

In June, Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos, was nailed when he erroneously said Turkey is an Arab country. The comment came during a roundtable discussion on ABC's "This Week" show, which is fact-checked weekly by PolitiFact. Moulitsas quickly tweeted a correction after the show, but it wasn't enough to avoid being hit with a "False" rating on the Truth-O-Meter.

"There's a hunger for this," says Richard Wagoner, deputy metro editor who oversees the paper's Truth Needle, which launched in August. "There's so much noise in these political campaigns. People have to know what is true out there and what isn't."

Still, reporters should not think that their incisive research will compel politicians to clean up their acts, cautions Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, the 7-year-old site that serves as the template for modern fact-checking initiatives. A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FactCheck.org operated on a budget of more than $900,000 in fiscal year 2010.

"Ever since the Greeks invented the word 'demagogue,' politicians have been acting like this," Jackson says, referring to their propensity to do or say whatever they deem necessary to grab and keep power. "It's not going to change."

Jackson points to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as proof. The one-time Republican presidential hopeful repeatedly makes erroneous statements, even after being corrected by fact-checkers and others, Jackson says. He notes that Giuliani has often said that men with prostate cancer have a 44 percent survival rate under England's health care system a lowball figure that has been contradicted by FactCheck.org, other news outlets and a host of experts.

Yet, Jackson says, Giuliani used to ignore the evidence and criticism and kept repeating the falsehood. "He's incorrigible," Jackson says. "Just incorrigible." (Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.)

What was up with that? I asked Wiley, who was deputy political director for Giuliani's 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. "There are some politicians who, if they believe something, they're going to say it," Wiley says. "That's just the way they are... There are some battles you're not going to win."

Despite the best efforts of the fact-checking outfits, many people continue to cling to canards like the "death panels" supposedly in the health care reform bill and President Barack Obama's alleged lack of a valid U.S. birth certificate.

So why bother spending all this time holding politicians accountable? The 68-year-old Jackson, who is frequently referred to as the father of fact-checking, doesn't hesitate before answering. "It's a First Amendment thing," he says. "It's what we do." It's necessary for the electorate to have somebody separating fact from fiction, Jackson says, regardless of what people choose to do with the information. "Our audience the citizens and voters need to know this.... [They're] awash in all sorts of unverified, false, misleading information."

Teams of reporters are scouring the airwaves, speeches, brochures, Web sites and legislative sessions weighing the accuracy of virtually every word uttered by politicians and TV talking heads. PolitiFact and FactCheck.org focus on national politicians, while scores of reporters are doing local checks, either through independent operations or PolitiFact spinoffs.

"We could do this on the national level," Jackson says, "but what about the guy running for governor or the guy running for dogcatcher?"

Local reporters at a variety of news operations are taking the challenge. Among them are PoliGraph, a partnership between Minnesota Public Radio and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota; the Denver Post's Political Polygraph; the Tacoma, Washington, Tribune's Tribune's Political Smell Test; the Voice of San Diego's fact-check blog; and BamaFactCheck.com, launched in September by the Anniston Star, the Decatur Daily, the Dothan Eagle, the Opelika-Auburn News, the Times Daily of Florence, the Tuscaloosa News and NBC 13 WVTM-TV of Birmingham. Unlike PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, both of which post new items year-round, some localfact-checking services may publish only during election season or as needed. Others, however, hope to keep an eye on the politicians on a continuing basis.

Each site uses different categories for rating the veracity of comments. For example, Caesar Meter, an initiative of the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, dubs true statements "Tall in the Saddle" while pegging false ones as "Horse Puckey."

Says Adair, who hopes that PolitiFact eventually has a partnership with media outlets in all 50 states: "My ultimate goal is that every politician in America ought to face the Truth-O-Meter," the trademarked graphic that ranks political claims on a scale ranging from "True" to "Pants on Fire." The flashy online version features a meter engulfed in flames, making it easy for a political opponent to play off the name and the graphic in a campaign attack ad.

To reach his ambitious goal, Adair, the creator of and an enthusiastic evangelist for PolitiFact, is traveling the country signing up media outlets to join his network. Each one that does pays between $25,000 and $30,000 for the first year, says Neil Brown, editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Then the tab drops to $1,000 per month.

Demand for the Truth-O-Meter, or the various independent versions of it that are springing up, is an outgrowth of the increasingly bitter rhetoric and name-calling on the campaign trail. Despite the reservations of Seattle Times reader Gib Heinz, reader response to fact-checking has been extremely positive, editors and reporters agree.

"The politicians hate it and the readers love it," says Atlanta's Tharpe. "And that's fine."

Tharpe and Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, report they receive complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. "I love it because it confuses the partisans on both sides," says Kaiser, who sees ideas like fact-checking as a key to industry survival, a thought embraced by Jackson and others.

"The function of the press, if we're going to survive, has got to evolve from being a gatekeeper [for information] to a referee or an arbitrator or some sort of adjudicator," Jackson says. "That's the audience that we need to figure out how to serve.... You don't serve it by just printing all the news that's fit to print. You have to address the false and misleading stuff."

And that's just what many in the fact-checking movement are doing. Topics that have been placed under the truth squad microscope include: The serious: Did President Obama in 2009 exaggerate the number of people who would be covered by his health care proposal? (He did, according to FactCheck.org.)

The silly: In 2007, PolitiFact reviewed a music video in which the so-called "Obama girl" declares during a faux debate, "At least Obama didn't marry his cousin" as Giuliani did. (PolitiFact's ruling: True.)

The subjective: TBD.com's The Facts Machine in September looked into whether Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty was a jerk. (The fledgling Web site's conclusion: Mostly On Point. Fenty later lost his bid for re-election.)

"We pushed the limit of the format with that one," says Kevin Robillard, the first-year reporter who does the bulk of the reporting for The Facts Machine. "We backed it up with a lot of reporting. You can't make three phone calls and declare Adrian Fenty a jerk."

Even unnamed bloggers or chain e-mailers are considered fair game for scrutiny. Brown, the St. Petersburg Times editor, bragged in his paper's 2009 submission to the Pulitzer Prize committee that PolitiFact shot down outlandish claims involving Obama.

"PolitiFact sorted out the truth about global e-mail attacks on Barack Obama, including that he used a Koran instead of a Bible when he was sworn into the U.S. Senate ("Pants on Fire"/False) and that his middle name was Muhammed (also "Pants on Fire"/False)," Brown wrote in his letter to the committee.

Jackson, who worked as a reporter at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN before launching FactCheck.org, says there is plenty of room for more players in the fact-checking game. He is especially open to those who can try out some gimmicks and add a little flash to enhance the format's appeal to the public. He says of the Penn-affiliated FactCheck.org, "We have to maintain a pretense of Ivy League respectability. As much as I admire what Bill [Adair] is doing [at PolitiFact], we can't get away with that ourselves."

Among the gimmicks that Jackson must eschew are pictures of Pinocchio, which the Washington Post used in its The Fact Checker feature in 2008, or the graphics in the Seattle Times that show the city's iconic Space Needle building with flags that indicate the truthfulness of a statement. And, of course, Jackson isn't going to put a match to a politician's trousers.

"It's a gimmick, but it's a hell of a good gimmick," Brown says of the Truth-O-Meter. "We've taken it beyond the academics...so this could be part of a mainstream, solid newsroom."

Though not particularly gaudy, the FactCheck.org Web site provides readers with an array of graphics and links. It also attracts significant attention, drawing 455,370 unique visitors in September compared to 407,164 for PolitiFact, according to Compete Inc., a company that tracks Web traffic.

If Jackson is the father of political fact-checking, then Brown and Adair are like the children of a successful entrepreneur who are trying to take Dad's single grocery store and turn it into a national chain.

Brown and Adair quickly realized that they had something they might be able to take national. Fact-checking ventures were popping up, the public seemed to enjoy them and the media were fascinated by PolitiFact, which ran its first item on August 22, 2007.

Adair made more than 200 media appearances in 2008 to discuss PolitiFact and its judgments, "including regular stops on MSNBC, NPR and CNN," Brown told the Pulitzer judges.

"We knew that people were going to come to us and want to do it," Adair says. "So we knew we had to design a business around it."

The eight newspapers that have bought the PolitiFact licensing rights and entered into partnerships with it are allowed to sell advertising on their own PolitiFact sites and to offer PolitiFact through print syndication to others in their state. When stories written by state sites are posted on the national PolitiFact site, the local newspaper gets credit for the pageviews its item receives.

In return, the media outlet agrees to produce several PolitiFact items each week there is no quota, but Adair hopes to see about five per week and to assign qualified reporters capable of meeting PolitiFact standards to research and write the stories. Reporters are given training as well as a manual detailing how to research and write a PolitiFact story.

For help in designing a game plan for expansion, Adair looked at two successful franchise operations: McDonald's and Subway. "They had a lot of good lessons," Adair says. "Both places rely heavily on training manuals and standardized procedures. Both do lots and lots of training, periodic quality control."

Adair keeps a close watch on what the local operations are producing. In one case, he says, a reporter who was not meeting PolitiFact standards was reassigned after Adair questioned the reporter's work. "We license our brand and our methods to our partners, and they agree to follow our methods," Adair says. "They are required to follow our standards for journalism."

When a media outlet buys into PolitiFact, editors and reporters receive about three days of training that includes explaining the formula for writing a PolitiFact story. Instead of the traditional inverted pyramid style, the PolitiFact stories follow a pyramid model, with the most important fact the verdict coming last. A dose of irreverence is encouraged.All sources are cited and comments from anonymous sources are forbidden.

The reporter who researches and writes the story recommends a Truth-O-Meter rating, but it is a panel generally consisting of two or three editors that makes the final judgment. Local editors decide which items should be investigated.

Though local news operations are often fiercely independent, the success of PolitiFact is persuading some editors to sign up for the program. The savings that come from joining a group as opposed to launching an independent operation also help make PolitiFact attractive to cash-strapped editors.

"I don't think this would have happened if everybody was rolling in the dough," Brown says. "Things have changed."

Indeed, he says, his paper and other regional media could follow suit and look for other ideas that could be shared with, or sold to, other newsrooms. "We should all be looking at things that are points of distinction," he says.

Some papers, however, prefer to go it alone.

Editors at the Seattle Times, for example, liked the idea of launching an in-house truth squad. "It was the kind of reporting that we want to do and want to do more of," Wagoner says. Times representatives met with Adair but decided the paper was not willing to devote the resources that would be required to join the PolitiFact network. "The commitment of personnel was pretty big" and would have cut into the paper's ability to do in-depth reporting on other topics, Wagoner says. "Something has to give at some point," he says, adding that PolitiFact is a year-round operation. The Times is continuing its popular Truth Needle, though Wagoner isn't sure how often it will appear. "It depends on the flow of the news," he said.

Newspaper consultant and AJR columnist John Morton says PolitiFact's unusual national licensing effort appears to be off to a good start, as its affiliates already include "fairly substantial newspapers." In addition to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, other newspapers in the PolitiFact network are the Austin American-Statesman, the Miami Herald, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Portland's Oregonian, the Providence Journal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"With the reduced staff that almost all newspapers are struggling with, they don't have the manpower to devise a good system," Morton says.

"We could have reinvented the wheel," says Julia Wallace, editor of the Journal-Constitution, which joined PolitiFact in June. "I didn't understand why we would want to."

The Journal Sentinel's Kaiser, which launched PolitiFact Wisconsin in September, says he was impressed with the PolitiFact style and the light touch it often uses. "One of the strengths of it is the consistency," Kaiser says. He says he decided to join the network as he watched yet another campaign season featuring politicians exchanging charges with nobody stepping in to separate truth from fiction.

"This is a revolutionary way to cover politics," Kaiser says.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle praise the concept of fact-checking enterprises but criticize the way they operate. Political staffers say they don't mind having their bosses' words scrutinized but object to what they view as subjective decisions sometimes based on ridiculous levels of word parsing.

"They have a very, very clear objective not to say that politicians are telling the truth," says Edward Chapman, a Democratic consultant who worked on the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of outgoing Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Chapman complains that he once spent an hour arguing with PolitiFact Georgia over whether a ranking of No. 47 on college entrance exams placed Georgia "right at the bottom," as Baker had said.

"It was a surreal experience," Chapman says. "If we had said 'near the bottom' they would have given us a true." Instead, the statement scored a rating of "half-true."

The dislike of having fact-checkers study the meaning of every word is, in fact, producing some bipartisan agreement among political staffers in a climate where that commodity is rare indeed. "The analysis of a single word or phrase misses the larger scope of what the candidate is saying," says Jill Bader, a Republican who has worked on campaigns in the District of Columbia and two states, most recently Wisconsin. "That fact that you guys get to choose which part of an ad you're going to highlight isn't really objective."

After Roy Barnes, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, said, "If we have to scrape the gold off the gold dome, you make sure that education comes first," PolitiFact Georgia gave him a "Pants on Fire" rating. The reason: The cost of scrapingthe gold would exceed the value of the precious metal. That ruling made even some journalists cringe.

"I wondered why are they even doing that one; people know he wouldn't go up there and scrape the gold off the dome," says Lori Geary, a reporter with WSB in Atlanta. "They take it verbatim.... Sometimes, I'm like, 'Well, what he said and what he implied are different.' "

But PolitiFact Georgia remains unapologetic. "We have every right to check hyperbole," says Tharpe, who wrote the Georgia dome item that ran in February. "It's fair game."

Overall, Geary says, she supports PolitiFact because it provides a service to readers and viewers. WSB is the sister station of the Journal-Constitution, and Geary does a weekly report during which she confronts a politician who is the subject of an upcoming PolitiFact Georgia report. She tells the politician the verdict PolitiFact Georgia has reached about a statement the political figure had made and solicits his or her reaction.

"I've had some of them cuss at me... I've had to bleep out a few candidates," she says. "The viewers love it."

Political consultant Wiley says fact-checkers would be more effective if they skipped the nitpicking and focused instead on the overarching message. Instead of using journalists to make all the calls, Wiley suggests news outlets hire former campaign staffers who understand how messages are being spun by candidates. "Now [fact-checkers] are choosing black and white statements. But if you had some political hacks, they would look at an ad and say, 'C'mon guys, this is what they're really saying.'"

Though not endorsing hiring old pols, TBD's Robillard sees Wiley's point about the limitations of fact-checkers. "You could fact-check the little lie, but you can't fact-check the big lies," he says. "If somebody says health care reform will make the country a better place, you can't fact-check that."

Regardless, politicians and their staffers are learning to adapt to the growth of truth squads. "It certainly becomes part of the overall picture, not the determining factor in how decisions will be made, but we have to be aware of this stuff," says Patrick Curley, a longtime Wisconsin Democrat and political confidant to Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor. Politicians are learning to use the ratings as a weapon to either promote themselves or attack their opponents, says Curley, who is Barrett's chief of staff.

"Everybody is kind of getting into the game.... All over the country, you're going to see Truth-O-Meters," Curley says. "It's already entered the calculus. It didn't take long."