5 good questions with Jason Noble of the Des Moines Register’s ‘Reality Check’

Iowa has long been an epicenter for U.S. politics, as home to the first-in-the nation presidential caucuses. This year, with the caucuses and the 2016 presidential race around the corner, the state’s largest newspaper has launched a fact-checking feature called “Reality Check.”

Jason Noble

Jason Noble, The Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register added two more political reporters to its staff and assigned reporter Jason Noble as the Reality Check reporter. Noble, an Iowa State and University of Missouri graduate, has  covered politics and government at both the Register and the Kansas City Star for nearly 10 years. In this Q&A with the American Press Institute, he discusses the importance of fact-checking in Iowa politics and the project’s goal.

What made the Des Moines Register decide to launch a fact-checking feature this year, for the first time? Can you take us behind the scenes?

The goal is add more nuance to our coverage and better serve our readers by not only reporting what candidates and leaders are saying but also assessing whether it’s true. That level of analysis is vital for our readers and the Iowa caucus electorate as they make decisions that have very real consequences for the 2016 presidential race. But it can be very difficult to do in real-time given the nature of on-the-trail political coverage. By focusing almost exclusively on fact-checks and related analytical reporting, the hope is that I can step back and provide context that isn’t otherwise available.

Reality Check has adopted a rating scale for statements ranging from “True” to “A shameless lie.”  What’s your reasoning in using a rating scale with your fact checks? Did you consider simply presenting the facts and letting the reader decide?

We developed our methodology and evaluation process with an open mind and initially were not committed to a rating scale. As we worked through it, though, my editors and I agreed that a rating scale provides a valuable shorthand for readers. We’re going to give them the deep-in-the-weeds explanation for why a statement is or isn’t true, with all the appropriate caveats and citations and links to source materials. But we also want to give them a concise judgment summing up what we found. A rating scale is a great way to do that.

A lot of discussion went into what the scale would consist of. Rather than adopting a potentially arbitrary point system or labeling statements by their degree of truth, we opted for a range of descriptive words — true, imprecise, misleading, false and a shameless lie — that illustrate not only the degree to which something is true or untrue but also what is untrue about it.

I want to hold public officials accountable for what they say and force them to alter their arguments if they’re using inaccurate or misleading information.

What’s been the reaction and response to Reality Check from public officials and politicians? From readers? Are you concerned about alienating any of those groups with a “false” or “shameless lie” rating?

The reader response has been substantial. I was surprised by how much the decision to brand “Reality Check” as an ongoing feature — with its own formatting, graphics, hashtag, a mugshot of me etc. —  increased the audience engagement. As for the nature of that engagement, I’d say it’s been about 50/50 positive and negative. Many people write in thanking me for providing what they see as a “value-added” service that goes beyond the straight reporting of the news. The people who are critical tend to read an ideological bias into my judgments or the statements I choose to evaluate. I get criticisms from both sides, which suggests to me I’m doing something right.

I haven’t gotten a lot of reaction so far from my fact-check subjects, although I’m sure that will change as the caucus campaign intensifies. One important thing, which was stressed to me by other fact checkers with whom I talked as we were planning the Reality Check beat, is to go to the source of the statement first and ask for their sources and citations. I’ve considered and incorporated the sources offered by my fact-check subjects into each piece I’ve produced, and I think that goes a long way toward blunting their complaints after the fact.

As far as alienating sources, I’m sensitive to the possibility that candidates and campaigns may close off access if they don’t like something I write. But that’s true even for traditional political reporting, and it’s not going to make me go “easy” on someone. One great thing about a fact check is that you show all your work. If I rate a statement a “shameless lie,” all the factual and logical steps that took me to that judgment are going to be on display. That’s what the fact-check subject is arguing with — not me as a reporter.

The Des Moines Register

Now that the project is underway, what’s your advice for news organizations preparing to launch a fact-checking feature? What knowledge, skills, training and experience should the effective political fact-checker possess?

Any news organization wanting to check facts should first establish a clear process and methodology for performing the checks. The key to credibility in my mind is transparency and consistency. You can’t just make it up as you go along.

Another very important thing is to make sure you’re only fact-checking facts. This sounds obvious, but much of what politicians and public officials say sounds true but contains no actual facts to judge against reality. Taking a strict approach that only evaluates verifiable facts against objective sources can limit your field of possible subjects, but it also protects you against making subjective judgments.

As far as knowledge, skills and experience, I think a general and wide-ranging background in political and government reporting is really helpful. I’ve written about local, state and national politics for almost 10 years and covered eight legislative sessions in two states. That’s given me a grounding in a lot of different subjects, but even more importantly it’s taught me where to go find information when I need it. More specifically, familiarity with state and federal data sources and experience with academic research is really helpful. Excel skills are a plus.

Finally, what is your goal/desired outcome/fondest hope in creating Reality Check? How will you know if you’ve been successful?

I want to make Iowa voters and caucus participants better educated about their candidates and leaders and the issues they’re talking about. I want to hold public officials accountable for what they say and force them to alter their arguments if they’re using inaccurate or misleading information. Beyond fact checks, I want to write explainers that will make complex policy issues more comprehensible to our readers and conduct investigations that will break news on the Iowa politics beat.

There’s no easy metric for measuring whether a public figure’s rhetoric becomes more truthful as a result of a reporter’s fact checks, but I’ll count it as a victory if a candidate drops certain lines from a stump speech as a result of my stories. Reader feedback will be important to measuring success as well. If someone goes out of their way to thank me for a fact check, I’ll take that as a sign I’m succeeding in what I set out to do.

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