How I Got That Fact: Confusing facts need attention, too

FCP_blackAs part of our efforts to improve and expand fact-checking, the American Press Institute regularly presents tips on how media organizations around the country chase down accuracy. Today, fact-checker Elizabeth Cleary, a reporter for the Taos (N.M.) News, explained how she checked the facts at a recent candidates’ forum.

BACKGROUND:  When the Taos News hosted a forum for candidates running for the Taos County Commission, the news editor asked the candidates for their thoughts on hot-button issues affecting our tight-knit, rural community. This revealed a lot about which candidates were keeping up with the issues and which candidates, frankly, did not have a clue. I was inspired to write a story fact-checking candidates’ answers after another reporter, J.R. Logan, wrote a similar story following a forum held for the Taos mayoral candidates.

FACT TO CHECK: A $56 million figure for building roads.

HOW I GOT THAT FACT:  I had an advantage here because I cover Taos County and knew right off the bat whether certain facts sounded totally off-base. But to be safe, I watched the video of the forum twice (which was time-consuming as it was a two-hour-long forum) and wrote down every statement a candidate cited as a fact.

I then took the list to the county manager, who oversees all of Taos County’s operations. He was a good starting point because he could either tell me whether a fact was true or false or point me in the direction of the department that would have the information. I found it was very important not to misquote candidates or misunderstand their assertions. I had to be sure I was fact-checking an assertion that a candidate had indeed made.

It was very important not to misquote candidates or misunderstand their assertions. I had to be sure I was fact-checking an assertion that a candidate had indeed made.

For example, one candidate, Jim Fambro, said during the forum that Taos County’s first district had a bonding capacity of $56 million with which to build roads. He later told me he meant to say Taos County as a whole had $56 million, but I was under the impression we were talking about budgets, not bonding capacities. If he were in fact talking about budgets, Fambro would have been way off because Taos County’s entire operating budget is less than $56 million.

As I was writing the story, something told me I needed to go back and listen to the video again, because I couldn’t believe Fambro could be that off about the county’s budget. That’s when I heard him say “bonding capacity.” Bonding capacities are much different than budgets. A bonding capacity is the maximum amount of debt the county can legally go into.

Still, because in his answer Fambro made it sound like these were funds the county was sitting on and not using, it was important to note in my story that these were not funds that the county has readily available. I also mentioned that if the county were to start issuing bonds for roads, county residents would see significant property tax hikes. Here’s an example of when a correction of a fact wasn’t necessarily warranted, but a clarification was.

 — Liz Cleary, reporter, Taos (N.M.) News

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