Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

‘Fact Check This’: How U.S. politics adapts to media scrutiny

Introduction

Media fact-checking has become a fact of life for political professionals, especially at the national level and in places where local news organizations have dedicated reporters to verifying statements by elected officials, candidates and their supporters.

This report looks at the ways the people who make those statements are adapting to the increased scrutiny. It is based on a review of responses to selected fact-checking reports and more than a dozen conversations with people in politics and journalism about how fact checking has changed their behavior. Some responses show how this style of coverage helps correct public statements and make political arguments more precise. But evidence also shows that fact-checking can be used to fuel the negative politics some of its proponents hope to counteract.

Some of the key findings are:

  • Political professionals anticipate fact-checking. They frame and back up public statements in advance to avoid being “PolitiFacted,” as Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Perry put it in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign.1 Political teams have devoted significant time and staff to responding to this kind of reporting — a process some compared to “a legal discovery process” and “going down the rabbit hole.”
  • Politicians frequently cite fact checks by news organizations to validate their arguments. They do so even if grudgingly or with an added jab at the media in general or fact-checking in particular. A review of House and Senate statements from 2013 and 2014 found that lawmakers cited national media fact checks 80 times in floor speeches and debates to reinforce their own point of view or to challenge an opponent’s argument. Only three statements in the Congressional Record for that period quarreled with the fact-checkers’ findings.
  • Political actors regularly “weaponize” fact checks. Candidates, staff and supporters, including party organizations and independent expenditure groups, cite fact checks in TV ads and debates to refute attacks and undermine opponents’ credibility. Political organizations also mischaracterize fact-checkers’ reporting or present the journalists’ conclusions in ways that are inaccurate or misleading.
  • Politicians ignore fact checks that contradict core strategic messages. Even persistent fact-checking may be disregarded when the conclusions undermine messages that are core to the campaign strategy, as both parties’ presidential nominees demonstrated in 2012. As one political ad-maker confided, “we’re not going to let fact-checkers write our ads anymore.”
  • Campaigns and supporters sometimes attack the fact-checkers. In a few races, a candidate’s supporters have “gone nuclear” on fact-checkers, mounting public campaigns to attack the credibility of news organizations and individual fact-checkers. In other cases, politicians have used the “silent treatment” as a way to deflect adverse reporting. “If you’re on the field, you’re probably going to get tackled,” said a state party official who was involved in one hard-hitting response to fact-checking (detailed in this report).
  • Fact-checkers need to experiment with different storytelling forms and formats. These can increase their reach and impact with the voting public and counteract misuse of their work. Experiments need to take into account how voters absorb media fact-checking and why they sometimes reject it. Fact-checkers also need to anticipate ways political players will use their reporting.

    Read more about this report in Politico Magazine.

    Read more about this report in Politico Magazine.

This report was not written to defend or criticize how politicians use media fact-checking, nor to fact-check the fact-checkers. It has no Pinocchios to issue or pants to set on fire.

Instead, it examines patterns in the ways American political players and their message machines respond to editorial fact-checking — behavior that demonstrates the significant role this reporting can play in the course of a campaign or political debate. As Brooks Jackson, founder of FactCheck.org, put it, “If they thought we didn’t matter there wouldn’t be any campaigns paying attention to us.”

  1. Joshua Gillin, “Jeb Bush: ‘Only because I am going to be PolitiFacted,’” PolitiFact, Dec. 2, 2014; W. Gardner Selby, “Rick Perry gets a laugh out of Texas Truth-O-Meter,” PolitiFact Texas, Jan. 15, 2015

How fact-checking journalism is changing politics

Even before PolitiFact’s Lou Jacobson contacted a congressional press secretary back in 2010, the spokesman’s boss had accumulated a disappointing series of low scores on the Pulitzer-winning news site’s trademarked “Truth-O-Meter.”

Several of Jacobson’s fellow reporters from the Tampa Bay Times’ national fact-checking team already had rated about half of this lawmaker’s statements false. The other half they’d checked were rated “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact’s lowest mark. And based on Jacobson’s preliminary reporting, he warned the press secretary that the new claim he was checking was at best “half true.”

The press secretary sent Jacobson a quick email reply remarking on PolitiFact’s previous reporting:

“a half true would be a welcome addition :-)”

Instead, the final ruling turned out to be another false.

With the increasing ranks of media fact-checkers over the past decade, exchanges like this have become a fact of life for American politicians, their staffs and advisers. An annual survey by the Duke Reporters’ Lab counted at least two dozen newsrooms, national and local, that actively provide conclusive, factual reporting about the validity of the claims that bombard voters. That tally includes national sites as well as 18 regional fact-checkers based in 17 states.1 And the American Press Institute has monitored the work of dozens more that do fact-checking occasionally.

The rise of this kind of journalism has quickly infected the language of politics. PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” and the equally catchy “Pinocchio” rating system used by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column often are cited in TV ads and congressional floor speeches. And in almost every level of politics, just invoking this journalism has become a shorthand way for speakers to claim a level of “truthiness.”

President Obama did it when he was touting a series of accomplishments in a 2015 speech. “I want everybody to do a fact check,” he said.2

In the Senate, Indiana Republican Dan Coats defended government surveillance programs in 2013, urging his colleagues and the media to “fact-check first.”3

And in the House, Democrat Bill Pascrell of New Jersey challenged listeners to refute his version of a 2013 budget face-off, saying: “Fact check this.”4

Behind all the talk, people who work on campaigns and in government say fact-checking is changing political dialogue and practices. Some have taken editorial fact checks to heart — modifying and even dropping lines of attack that journalists found unfair or untruthful. As a matter of routine, political players try to preempt editorial scoldings with a combination of caution and supporting documentation that can keep campaigns on the truthier side of the fact-checkers’ rating systems.

While fact-checking clearly has impact in politics, a close review also suggests that the results are not always for the best. Facts-checks have become new weapons on the political battlefield — used as shields or clubs in campaign ads, stump speeches and debates. “If you get a good ruling, you can swing it like a cudgel at your opponent through the entire campaign,” said one senior state party official in Virginia. “And there’s little if any defense.”

Rather than draining power from negative campaigning and partisan politics, fact-checking can fuel it. Political organizations regularly capitalize on fact-checkers’ credibility in ads that knowingly distort the journalists’ findings. In one case, a campaign even created a fact check of its own, dismissing an opponent’s attack as “false,” even though media fact-checkers found otherwise.

Early in North Carolina’s brutal 2014 Senate race, before Republican Thom Tillis had won his party’s nomination, a Democratic super PAC targeted him with a salacious TV commercial. The Senate Majority PAC’s ad focused on severance payments the state House speaker made to two legislative aides he’d fired for having inappropriate personal relationships with lobbyists. The Tillis campaign fired back with its own form of fact-checking. “Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis?” a narrator asked. “They’re false” — the word “FALSE” appearing on screen in capital red letters with a big red X, blatantly borrowing the authoritative wording and imagery of media fact checks.

As it turned out, three actual media fact-checkers found that the super PAC’s claims about the severance payments were closer to the truth than Tillis’s “False.”5 But the Tillis campaign showed all the reasons political operations often find this style of reporting so useful in debates and ads — even when they use it to distort the truth.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said fact checks provide such effective fodder for political commercials that when campaign ad-makers want to use a “true” or “false” ruling from a journalism organization, he doesn’t always test the message on voters first, as is typically done. “It’s assumed that it’s going to have an impact,” he said.

The pollster, whose clients included 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is less convinced that the journalists who dissect campaign messages have much direct impact on the voting public, given changing media habits. “Nobody reads the damn newspaper,” he said. But when campaigns repeat that same newspaper’s findings over and over through the megaphone of paid political advertising, they can sting.

“Just because something gets four Pinocchios doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Newhouse said. “It’s how you use it.”

About this report and the author

My own biases when it comes to the potential of fact-checking journalism are too relevant to disclose in small font or a footnote, so I’ll break the editorial fourth wall and state them here: I’m a fact-checking advocate.

As a political researcher for the Washington Post in the early 1990s, I worked for columnist David S. Broder at a time when he was pushing newsrooms like his to aggressively police and fact-check political ads on TV. I contributed to some of the Post’s early “30-Second Politics” stories and debate-night “truth squad” reports during the 1992 presidential campaign; and later created “The Debate Referee” for the Post’s online coverage of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 races. Because of that, PolitiFact founder Bill Adair used me as an informal adviser when he was first launching that site for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times).

As a senior editor at NPR, my staff partnered with PolitiFact on “the Message Machine,” a project for the 2010 midterm elections. More recently, I have served on an advisory board for PunditFact, PolitiFact’s sister site that focuses on remarks by media commentators and analysts. (Additional disclosure: Adair is now a contributing editor at PolitiFact and a professor at Duke University’s public policy school, where I have worked with him and his Duke Reporters’ Lab on research about data reporting tools and other aspects of digital journalism.)

My views on fact-checking are not universally shared in journalism. Some news people, much like their counterparts in politics, have concerns about the true/false rating systems that most fact-checkers use. They worry that playing referee forces reporters to take sides, or that fact-checkers nitpick and depend on false balance to try to avoid appearing partisan.

Others argue that fact-checking should be an even more integral part of everyday reporting — not isolated on dedicated sites, boxes, segments and blogs or limited to campaign coverage. As Jon Stewart once asked former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw on The Daily Show, “When did fact checking and journalism separate?”6

Because of my familiarity and experience, the American Press Institute asked me to explore how this kind of reporting is changing how people in politics do their jobs. But my views are not the substance of this report. The findings here are based on an even-handed review of selected fact checks and more than a dozen interviews with people in politics and journalism — a reporting process we intended to identify the needs, flaws and challenges in fact-checking as well as evidence of its success.

A number of the newsroom fact-checkers and people who work in politics quoted here generously shared their time, experiences and recollections. Several fact-checkers shared copies of their communication with political staff, sometimes under an agreement that this report not identify the sender without that person’s permission, as the communication had not been sent as an official response intended for broadcast or publication. In some cases, those communications are quoted here anonymously to help describe the tone and relationship between fact-checkers and those they cover.

Many political professionals contacted for this report simply were not willing to be interviewed or quoted by name. In part, their reluctance reflected the churn of politics — a profession in which people’s jobs change frequently based on two- and four-year election cycles. In a handful of cases, some are quoted anonymously — a practice, worth noting, that most fact-checkers avoid in their own reporting.

Fact-checking is clearly having an impact on how political players communicate, even if that’s difficult to measure and academic research finds the effects on voters are mixed. Other studies have documented ways in which fact-checkers’ ratings spotlight inaccuracies. They also show how attempts to set the record straight can backfire and reinforce set political opinions among readers, viewers and listeners.

Rather than focus on measurable outcomes, this report aims to look for effects that are harder to quantify. It looks for patterns in how people directly involved in the process say fact checking has changed the ways political professionals behave. That includes everything from attempts to use fact checks to portray opponents as liars and to challenge the integrity of various news organizations and individual journalists.

How fact-checkers measure impact

Overall, PolitiFact’s Adair compares the cumulative effect of fact-checking to cars slowing down when they see a state trooper on the side of a highway. “There’s less lying today than there would be if there weren’t fact-checkers. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.

But less lying is not necessarily the mission. Adhering to the traditional sense that news is about informing citizens, not influencing political actors, many fact-checkers insist that changing how politicians and campaigns behave is not part of their job descriptions.

“I’ve never thought that success or failure should be measured by the effect it has on candidates and campaigns. It should measured by the effect it has on voters,” said Jackson, the FactCheck.org founder. “If you think you’re going to try to change a politician in a democratic system, they’re going to break your heart. This has gone on for 2,000 years.”

Jackson is the dean of U.S. fact-checkers.The former Wall Street Journal reporter’s on-air truth-wrangling for CNN in the 1990s, along with the work of a handful of reporters at other national news organizations, helped inspire the dedicated fact-checking efforts that followed. That includes the non-profit news site he started at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003, as well as PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker, which launched four years later.

Together these three sites have become “the Big Three — the automakers of fact-checking,” as dubbed by Kara Carscaden, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign press secretary. Jackson’s voter-focused approach still serves as a template for most of those journalists, and for many others around the world who’ve adopted a similar model in their countries.7

“I don’t write this stuff for politicians,” said Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker columnist. “Politicians are going to do what they’re going to do. The point of the fact checks is to inform voters.”

Because it generally eschews the all-too-common posturing by reporters for access and their quest for insider tidbits, fact-checking can be a radically different journalistic process. “We don’t have to schmooze and kiss people’s asses,” said PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan.

At the same time, Holan said the work can be intense and time-consuming for reporters and political staffs alike. And both sides labor over every detail. To that end, Holan said she often quotes an axiom she attributes to Amy Sherman, a Miami Herald reporter who works on the PolitiFact Florida team: “Let’s fight before we publish, not after.”

To the people on the other end of the phone line or the email exchange, these fact-checkers are not really referees or umpires — officials whose calls they must heed. Rather, they are more like dealers at a casino table, turning over cards they must decide how to play.

How political players react to fact-checking

This report looks at examples of some common and controversial ways political players respond to media fact-checking, including:

  • Validating: Having the facts on your side is one way to win an argument. That may be why nearly every member of Congress who referred to media fact checks in their floor speeches and debates in 2013 and 2014 cited stories whose findings they agreed with.
  • Weaponizing: Journalists may do fact checks to set the record straight and end arguments, but their reporting often ends up becoming part of the discussion — and, as TV ads often demonstrate, part of the distortion.
  • Standing their ground: Disciplined political players stay on message, even in the face of significant fact-checking. Some think they’re right. Some think they’re immune.
  • Going nuclear: One way people in politics “stand their ground” is to take on the fact-checkers directly. This kind of “shoot the messenger” strategy is rare, but it can be effective — at least with base supporters.
  • Going silent: Some communicators will become so frustrated with fact-checkers that they simply stop answering their questions. But “the silent treatment” can come at a political price, too.
  • Modifying, preparing and preempting: Politicians don’t enjoy being publicly corrected, so many now rely on their staffs to anticipate fact-checking while they are crafting their messages. For those working in national politics or in media markets with local fact-checkers, that means a lot of work. But it also pays off.
  1. Bill Adair and Ishan Thakore, “Fact-Checking Census finds continued growth around the world” Duke Reporters Lab, Jan. 19, 2015; updated data
  2. Louis Jacobson, “Barack Obama urges audience to ‘do a fact-check.’ We oblige,” PolitiFact.com, Feb. 20, 2015
  3. Congressional Record, June 17, 2013
  4. Congressional Record, Oct. 8, 2013
  5. D’Angelo Gore, “Tillis Response Ad Cries ‘False,'” FactCheck.org, April 22, 2014; Glen Kessler, “A claim of ‘false’ when the ad is basically true,” Washington Post, April 23, 2014; Julie Kliegman, “Thom Tillis, Senate Majority PAC disagree on disgraced staffers,” PolitiFact, April 25, 2014
  6. The Daily Show, Sept. 4, 2012
  7. Bill Adair and Ishan Thakore, “Fact-Checking Census finds continued growth around the world,” Duke Reporters Lab, Jan. 19, 2015; updated data

Politicians use fact checks to validate their own claims

Politicians talk about fact-checking — a lot. But “you don’t have to take my word for it,” as Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington once said, citing a fact check from the Washington Post. In fact, searches in the Congressional Record for 2013 and 2014 found three different senators on four occasions using that same “don’t take my word for it” set-up to discuss a particular fact-checking news story.1 And there were more where those came from.

A review of remarks in the Congressional Record found that 25 Senators — a quarter of the Senate — and 10 members of the House referred to the most prominent national fact-checking sites in speeches and debate at least once during the 113th Congress. The remarks came from both sides of the aisles in both chambers. But two-thirds of the lawmakers who alluded to fact-checkers were Republicans.

And Republicans also referred to fact-checkers more than twice as often as Democrats (57 Republican statements to 26 from Democrats). That was a bit surprising, since other research from the American Press Institute published in March shows that Republican voters have a less favorable attitude toward fact checking than Democrats do.2

Of all 83 statements, only three challenged a fact-checker’s findings. In every other reference, the senators and representatives from both parties cited fact-checkers to reinforce their point or undermine their opponents.

Democrats Republicans House Senate
Mentions 26 57 13 70

Data Source: Congressional Record

American Press Institute

Not all the comments were positive. Even when lawmakers were using fact checks to help make their case, the remarks could be a little grudging.

“Now, I do not always agree with the fact-checkers, who are sometimes wrong,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada — even as he referred directly to rulings by PolitiFact and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker to decry “egregious examples” of erroneous TV ads paid for by groups funded by the Koch brothers.3

Reid’s counterpart, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was one the most frequent users of fact checks in his statements on the Senate floor (second only to fellow Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming). McConnell referred to fact checks 10 times during the 113th Congress, even while he made clear that he was not always thrilled with the media outlets that published them. Taking aim at Reid for misleading statements about Republican efforts to stall votes on judicial nominations, he twice cited “a fact-checker from a major left-wing paper” — a reference to a story published a few days earlier by the Washington Post.4

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas made a similar crack about the Washington Post’s reputation among some in his party, while simultaneously using one of its fact checks to make a point about Obama administration statements following the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. “Hardly an unsympathetic newspaper editorially to the administration’s point of view,” Cornyn said of the Post. But Cornyn clearly appreciated its fact-checking anyway. He cited the Post’s Fact Checker in the Senate three times in the two years that were reviewed. 5

The only three lawmakers who questioned the fact checks they cited were each referring to fact checks that questioned statements they had made. “I am having a dispute with PolitiFact right now, but I stand by my assertion,” Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island once told his Senate colleagues, after the site’s partners at the Providence Journal questioned the Democrat’s claim about rising ocean temperatures. Whitehouse earned a “half true” with that statement, but he still cited PolitiFact six other times over the course of the 113th Congress. 6

Another lawmaker who took issue with a fact check was Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert. But the Texas congressman apparently challenged the wrong fact-checker, saying that PolitiFact “took a shot at me” for a statement he’d made about the Affordable Care Act’s impact on people whose incomes were just above the poverty line. Gohmert likely was referring to an item published the previous month by FactCheck.org, not PolitiFact.7 Despite all that, a few months later Gohmert eagerly touted PolitiFact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” — President Obama’s promise that anyone who liked their health care coverage would be able to keep it after the Affordable Care Act was enacted. But the congressman did so with an extra jab at the fact-checkers for not having called the president on his statement earlier than they did. “Even PolitiFact had to finally get around to being factual,” he said.8

Politicians seem to have a hard time resisting some of the most contentious fact-checking terms, such as “Lie of the Year,” at least based on the the number of references in Congress to those sometimes controversial rating systems. “The instantaneous reaction of fact-checkers was four Pinocchios, Pants on Fire, complete untruth,” Rep. Carl Levin said in one such statement. Levin was specifically referring back to a claim about welfare from Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. But the Michigan Democrat’s use of the fact-checking terminology was typical.9

References to the Washington Post’s Pinocchio scale and PolitiFact’s Pants on Fire and Lie of the Year turned up in two-thirds of the fact-checking mentions found in the Congressional Record for 2013-14 (56 out of 83 statements). That includes five Pants on Fire, 19 Lies of the Year and 31 Pinocchios. Some came from repeated references to the same 2013 Lie of the Year that Rep. Gohmert referred to.10

Republicans talked about that designation so often that some of them eventually just referred to the Lie of the Year without specifying which fact-checker made that ruling, or even that a news organization had done so. Republican Leader McConnell, for instance, sometimes referred simply to “a promise that was voted the Lie of the Year in 2013” or a claim “that turned out to be the Lie of the Year.”11

A few Democrats harkened back to PolitiFact’s 2010 Lie of the Year, which focused on Republican claims that the health care law enacted that year would be “a government takeover of health care.”

Overall, Democrats used all of the most contentious fact-checking terms far less often than their Republicans colleagues, accounting for 15 of the of the 56 statements that referred to Pants on Fire, Lies of the Year or Pinocchios. But they were hardly immune from their rhetorical appeal. Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, a former weekly newspaper publisher and columnist from Louisville, provided an example in a statement deriding the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, a decision that removed most legal restrictions on campaign spending by independent political groups and other organizations.

“If the Washington Post Fact Checker actually had to present real Pinocchios for all of the dishonest ads made possible by Citizens United,” Yarmouth said, “Geppetto would be the busiest man in America.”12

As it turns out, the fact-checkers could spend a lot of time reviewing TV ads just for references to their own work.

  1. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on 3/20/13 and 3/21/13; John Hoeven, R-N.D., on 7/31/13; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on 7/14/14. All three were referring to items by the Washington Post Fact Checker.
  2. Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Estimating Fact-checking’s Effects: Evidence from a long-term experiment during campaign 2014 (American Press Institute, 2015)
  3. Congressional Record, Feb. 26, 2014
  4. Congressional Record, May 13, 2014
  5. Congressional Record, May 14, 2013; May 15, 2013; July 9, 2013
  6. Congressional Record, May 8, 2013; C. Eugene Emery Jr., “U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: Narragansett Bay in R.I. has gotten 4 degrees warmer since the 1960s,” PolitiFact Rhode Island, April 28, 2013
  7. Congressional Record, Sept. 27, 2013; Eugene Kiely, “Louie Gohmert’s Health Care Hooey,” FactCheck.org, Aug. 14, 2013
  8. Congressional Record, Dec. 12, 2013
  9. Congressional Record, March 13, 2013
  10. Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If you like your health care plan, you can keep it’,” PolitiFact.com, Dec. 12, 2013
  11. Congressional Record, Feb. 25, 2014; April 30, 2014
  12. Congressional Record, Sept. 10, 2014

Politicians use fact checks as weapons against opponents

Most newsrooms’ early efforts to referee political communication focused on the content of political advertising. During election seasons, just trying to keep up with those claims and counter-claims can still be Sisyphean work for fact-checkers. And, perhaps fitting for this meta-media era, an increasing amount of that effort involves fact-checking claims about earlier fact checks, since all those eye-catching Pinocchios and Truth-O-Meter ratings are perfect material for a 30-second political response or attack.

Neil Newhouse, the Republican pollster, said campaigns care far less about fact-checkers than they do about how the fact-checkers’ stories can be “redistributed with voters,” mostly in the form of advertising. “A fact-checker could absolutely destroy an ad,” but it’s irrelevant “if nobody knows about it,” he said. “If it didn’t happen on TV and it didn’t happen on TV a few nights in a row, it didn’t happen.”

Much like the references found in the Congressional Record, most political organizations rarely, if ever, use advertising to challenge all this media scrutiny. Instead they use fact checks to reinforce their point or challenge an opponent’s credibility.

Fact checks are “very useful to campaigns when they’re on your side,” said Democratic political strategist Anita Dunn. “They’re most useful as a counter-offensive tool.” And by “counter-offensive,” Dunn and other political operatives often mean ads that suggest their opponents are lying.

“We use that [fact-checking] in our advertising to say you can’t trust them,” Newhouse said. “You look for third-party credibility that says the other guy is not playing fair…. It becomes part of the ad war.”

That was clearly the case in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, where in 2014 state Sen. Evan Jenkins ended Democrat Nick Rahall’s 38-year career in the House of Representatives. Both sides in the nasty campaign gave fact-checkers plenty of material to work with, as both local and national media watching the race reported at the time.1 But Jenkins, a recent party-switcher running as a Republican for the first time, used several TV ads to aggressively trumpet fact checks that were critical of his opponent, with references to stories from FactCheck.org, Time and the Washington Post, often with images of the stories and logos from the fact-checkers’ sites and mastheads.

“Nick Rahall’s attacks on Evan Jenkins: Non-partisan fact-checkers say they’re bogus, out-and-out lies, false,” a narrator said in one Jenkins campaign ad. “One ad so wrong TV stations rejected it. Nick Rahall: A lying politician, just like Obama.” In another ad, a narrator also referred to the Washington Post as Rahall’s “hometown paper” — a bonus slam aimed at the congressman’s long career in the Capitol.2

Fact-checkers are keenly aware of how their reporting might be used by the campaigns they’re covering — especially in advertising. “It’s like it has the PolitiFact stamp of approval,” said Greg Borowski, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact Wisconsin team.

But using this reporting to make or bolster a point in a commercial does not mean the ad-makers are beyond distorting journalists’ findings. One example from Borowski’s region came early in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2014 re-election campaign. That February, the Republican Governors Association targeted Walker’s Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, in part by recycling a claim that PolitiFact Wisconsin had already found “mostly false.” Surprisingly, the RGA backed up its claim in that instance by citing that very same fact check.

The commercial concentrated on Burke’s record while she was the state’s Commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle — a period the ad’s narrator said “left Wisconsin with 130,000 fewer jobs.” A caption underscored the 130,000 job losses, attributing the data point to a five-month-old PolitiFact story.3

But that was not exactly what that story said. PolitiFact Wisconsin had given Walker a “mostly false” rating for citing a similar number of job losses during a 2013 TV interview. The ruling was a tricky one: PolitiFact found that Walker’s figure was “numerically true, but with scant evidence at best when it comes to blame,” since experts said broader, economic forces were at play, not just Doyle administration policies.4

Despite the PolitiFact rating, “numerically true” was apparently true enough for Walker’s RGA backers to use both the job-loss count and the fact-check reference in their advertisement. When it came time to fact-check the new RGA commercial, PolitiFact repeated its earlier call on the governor’s nearly identical claim: It was still “mostly false.”5

The Republican Governors Association was hardly alone in its creative use of adverse fact-checking. One relentless series of TV ads that still makes Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler shake his head was produced for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes during her 2014 campaign to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And not just because Grimes ended up repeating a claim that Kessler and other fact-checkers had already found flimsy. “I gave her four Pinocchios and then she went and cut an ad repeating that to the camera,” Kessler said. “Ordinarily you rely on an unseen narrator to make these absurd charges. She did it in front of the camera.”

For much of that year, the Grimes-McConnell race was expected to be a close one, with volleys of negative advertising for fact-checkers to monitor. By mid-October, Kessler’s blog alone had reviewed ads and other statements from Kentucky more than a half-dozen dozen times, resulting in a slew of three-Pinocchio calls and one four-Pinocchio ruling.

The four-Pinocchio rating went to Grimes as she and McConnell were trying to outflank one another with their support for the state’s coal industry. In this case, the Democrat was responding to a McConnell attack ad that said Grimes “takes big money from people who want to destroy Coal.” Grimes fired back, saying McConnell and his independently wealthy wife “personally took $600,000 from anti-coal groups….The only candidate pocketing big money from people who want to destroy coal is Mitch McConnell.”6

That wasn’t how the fact-checkers saw it though. In addition to the four Pinocchios that Kessler gave Grimes’ ad, FactCheck.org said her $600,000 claim was “tenuous” and PolitiFact ruled that the response was “false.”

When McConnell used those stories to challenge Grimes’ credibility, as he did in a televised debate the following week, the Democrat returned fire again. 7 This time her commercial made use of fact-checking that had focused on ads created by McConnell’s campaign and supporters. The commercial began with a rollout of seven words and phrases in all-caps attributed to various news sources:

“FALSE”
WAVE3, 7/17/14

“MISLEADING”
WASHINGTON POST, 7/11/14

“DEBUNKED”
WASHINGTON POST 7/11/14

“A WHOPPER”
FACTCHECK.ORG, 7/9/14

“SHAKY CLAIMS.”
ASSOCIATED PRESS 7/9/14

“GLARING PROBLEM”
FACTCHECK.ORG, 7/9/14

“FALSE”
POLITIFACT 8/13/14

The words were read aloud by one voice as a narrator intoned overtop, “That’s what independent fact-checkers are saying about Mitch McConnell’s ads. He’ll say anything.”8

But that was not exactly what all of those fact-checkers had said. The FactCheck.org, AP and Post reports were all double-barreled stories looking at dubious claims about Medicare in ads from both campaigns. In the Post’s story, for instance, McConnell’s Medicare ad earned two Pinocchios, but Grimes fared worse. She got four. And the “shaky claims” phrase in the AP story cited by Grimes’ advertisement was not a reference to McConnell. Instead it was aimed at President Obama, of all people, along with other candidates in the previous election cycle.9

Amid this confusion and blatant misrepresentation, the Grimes campaign also generated another TV spot. Even as she was relying on fact-checking references in one ad, she was repeating a claim previously rejected by three of the same national fact-checkers — her earlier contention that McConnell and his wife personally profited from anti-coal money. This was the ad in which Grimes spoke directly to the camera, standing in front of a coal plant: “I approve this message because the difference between Mitch and me is I will fight for these jobs and no New York anti-coal billionaire will ever buy me off.”

At the Post, Fact Checker Glenn Kessler referred back to his previous reporting and issued Grimes another four Pinocchios for “doubl[ing] down on this falsehood,” as well as other misstatements he found in the script.10 Kessler later included this particular ad in the Post’s late-October list of “the most fact-challenged ads of the 2014 midterm elections” and a year-end collection of “the biggest Pinocchios of 2014.”11

  1. Curtis Johnson, “Attack ads in race criticized,” The Herald-Dispatch (Huntington, W.Va.), Sep. 28, 2014; Trip Gabriel: “Race Tests Democrats’ Viability in West Virginia,” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2014
  2. Videos from Evan Jenkins’ campaign YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo6blDldHSE; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwwuK1-YRds; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_Lm0xTej0I
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrL7jdCEaLc
  4. James B. Nelson, “Gov. Scott Walker says the policies of Democrat Jim Doyle cost the state 133,000 jobs,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, Sept. 18, 2013
  5. Dave Umhoefer, “Republican group ties Wisconsin job loss to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, March 5, 2014
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drTVvto7od4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orSOULCNn9w
  7. Glenn Kessler, “4 Pinocchios for a misguided ‘big money’ coal attack by Alison Grimes,” Washington Post, Oct. 7; Steve Contorno, “Alison Lundergan Grimes says Mitch McConnell, not she, is taking money from anti-coal groups,” PolitiFact, Oct. 8, 2014; Robert Farley, “Kentucky Coal Connections,” Factcheck.org, Oct. 7, 2014; Sam Youngman, “Washington Post fact-checker says ‘Grimes should be ashamed of herself,'” Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 23, 2014; “Kentucky U.S. Senate Candidates Grimes and McConnell | Kentucky Tonight | KET,” YouTube, Oct. 14, 2014
  8. Video of Grimes’ ad
  9. Brooks Jackson, Robert Farley and Lori Robertson, “Medicare Ghost Stories,” FactCheck.org, July 9, 2014; Glenn Kessler, “A Kentucky shootout over stale Medicare claims,” Washington Post, July 11, 2014; Adam Beam and Calvin Woodward, “FACT CHECK: It’s ‘Mediscare’ time in Kentucky,” AP (via Yahoo News), July 9, 2014; Note: One of the five fact checks cited by the Grimes campaign was in fact as the “say anything” ad described it: a PolitiFact story that found a McConnell ad “mostly false.” (We could not locate the the fifth fact-check cited in the ad — an item that apparently was part of a regular “Reality Check” broadcast by the NBC affiliate in Louisville.) See Steve Contorno, “Mitch McConnell ad says he supported ‘stronger’ Violence Against Women Act than Barack Obama, PolitiFact.com, Aug. 13, 2014 and this related item: Steve Contorno, “Alison Lundergan Grimes ad claims McConnell twice voted against Violence Against Women Act,” PolitiFact.com, Aug. 13, 2014; Local NBC station WAVE3 in Louisville routinely posted its “Reality Check” stories on its website, but we did not find any items on or around July 17 that rated McConnell false.
  10. Glenn Kessler, “Alison Grimes doubles down on a 4-Pinocchio claim,” Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2014; Kessler’s reporting was based on YouTube version of ad uploaded on Oct. 21, 2014
  11. Glenn Kessler, “The most fact-challenged ads of the 2014 midterm elections,” Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2014; Glenn Kessler, “The biggest Pinocchios of 2014,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2014

Politicians keep pushing claims despite what fact checks say

By running TV ads that recycled and repeated claims that journalists had previously found false, Kentucky Democrat Alison Grimes and the Republican Governors Association were demonstrating another tactic political organizations use to respond to fact-checkers: sticking to their guns.

As one Democratic consultant put it, “We’re not going to let fact-checkers write our ads anymore.”

In some cases that approach may reflect a political sense that an adverse fact-check, especially by an out-of-market national news outlet, may have only so much effect on the parts of the electorate that matter most. That calculation is the flip side of Republican pollster Neil Newhouse’s observation that a media fact-check “doesn’t mean a damn thing” unless an opponent turns it into a TV ad that repeats the ruling often enough to seep in. But it also can reflect a political team’s belief that the fact-checkers “are sometimes wrong,” as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid once put it.1

On that, Reid and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz may have found a rare point of agreement. Of the 35 senators and representatives who spoke about fact-checking during speeches and debates in Congress, the Texan was one of only three lawmakers in 2013 and 2014 who directly questioned a fact-checker’s findings. In his 2013 remarks, Cruz described his run-in with an “ostensibly neutral reporter at a mainstream publication.” He rejected the reporting by “our friends at the Washington Post in their so-called ‘fact check,'” which had challenged his analysis of an immigration measure that was before the Senate. Cruz said the Post had “compliantly” repeated the arguments made by the legislation’s supporters, whose positions he found “on their face, singularly unpersuasive.”2

Some of the most notable “stand your ground” moments came during the 2012 presidential campaign, when, for instance, Republican Mitt Romney stuck with attacks on Obama’s international “apology tour” all the way through his general election debates with the president. That despite 2½ years of fact-checking, in which the claim was consistently rejected by PolitiFact (“False” and later “Pants on Fire”), the Washington Post (four Pinocchios) and FactCheck.org (“Nowhere did we see that the president ‘apologized’” for America”).3

Referring to those findings, Obama directly challenged his opponent on the issue when Romney raised the point again in their third and final debate. “This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign,” Obama said. “And every fact-checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”4

Romney mounted an extended defense of his claim, but fact-checkers weren’t swayed in their post-debate reviews.5 That the Republican nominee would stick with this line of attack anyway, despite all the fact checks, was understandable, since the premise was the basis of his 2010 book and political manifesto, No Apologies. It also was an argument that rang true with many conservatives, some of whom made similar arguments also cited in some of the fact-checking reports.

The same was the case for the president, whose campaign forcefully defended its attacks on Romney’s role and responsibilities for the business practices of Bain Capital, the Boston investment firm he co-founded in 1984. Here again, the campaign saw its position as core to its strategic argument that “the middle class had been pummeled,” as senior Obama adviser David Axelrod explained at a post-election conference with top officials from both campaigns and parties at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “It wasn’t just a tactic,” he said. “It was a reflection of an attitude.”6

At the Harvard conference, Axelrod and and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter described how the Obama team had their eye on the Bain issue early on, with Cutter organizing media events to stoke interest even before it was clear Romney would win his party’s nomination. Axelrod said they also watched anxiously when Romney’s Republican primary opponents began to use Romney’s Bain experience in their campaigns, worrying that some of those attacks were “potentially going overboard” and “would spoil the issue moving forward.”7

Given the deep investment in preserving the Bain argument, it fell to Cutter to defend the Obama campaign’s attacks when fact-checkers began to challenge the details.8 An example of the intensity of that defense came in the form of a six-page letter she sent to the top editors at FactCheck.org in July. The letter was a response to the site’s lengthy analysis of a series of back-to-back Obama ads that focused on Romney’s role at Bain and his responsibility for its investments in companies the ads said sent U.S. jobs overseas.

FactCheck.org founder Brooks Jackson said he and his colleagues first heard about Cutter’s letter “when other reporters called us about it.” Circulating the letter to other journalists appeared to be a way for the campaign to respond to questions about FactCheck.org’s findings, and perhaps discourage reporters from referring to a fact-check the campaign was actively contesting. But Obama campaign officials asked about their process for this report did not respond to requests for interviews or said they could not discuss the matter, except to say the campaign and the journalists saw the facts differently. “We just had very different sets of opinions,” one key aide said. “We really felt we were right.”

Added another campaign adviser, “You just decide the fact-checker is wrong.”

Cutter’s letter to FactCheck.org cited excerpts from news articles and various legal filings it said showed Romney was more involved in Bain than he acknowledged after he said he left his management role with the company to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. 9 But the editors at FactCheck.org were not swayed.

“It was total bullshit,” Jackson said.

The following day, FactCheck.org published a follow-up story that linked to the campaign’s response standing by its conclusions about the Obama ad blitz. Jackson and his colleagues wrote that they found “the Obama campaign’s evidence to be weak or non-existent” and rejected Cutter’s request for corrections. “In a nutshell,” they said, “the Obama campaign is all wet on this point.”10

Other fact-checkers were reaching similar conclusions about the Bain issue. But over the following weeks, additional documents and accounts, some circulated by the campaigns and some dug up by reporters, led to even more fact-checking. In the end, the back-and-forth proved to be more confusing than clarifying — “a series of cul-de-sacs and rabbit-holes,” as Greg Marx put it in the Columbia Journalism Review.11

In late July, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler published a summary of 11 columns he had written on Romney and Bain since the start of the year, as well as his analysis of some of the conflicting claims and reporting on the matter. “So we are at an impasse,” he wrote. “Because of the ambiguity, there is considerable room for interpretation of known facts.”12

And that ambiguity was enough for the Obama campaign to stand its ground.

  1. Congressional Record, Feb. 26, 2014
  2. Congressional Record, June 25, 2013; Glenn Kessler, “Ted Cruz’s errant tweet that employers would have a ‘huge incentive’ to hire newly legalized workers,” Washington Post, June 21, 2013
  3. Angie Drobnic Holan, “Obama’s remarks never a true ‘apology,'” PolitiFact, March 15, 2010; Angie Drobnic Holan and Katie Sanders “Mitt Romney says Barack Obama began his presidency ‘with an apology tour,'” PolitiFact, Oct. 17, 2012; Glenn Kesler, “Obama’s ‘Apology Tour,'” Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2011; Robert Farley, “Romney’s Sorry “Apology’ Dig,” FactCheck.org, Aug. 31, 2012
  4. http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-22-2012-the-third-obama-romney-presidential-debate
  5. Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Ben Finley, “False Claims in Final Debate,” FactCheck.org, October 23, 2012
  6. Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2012 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in partnership with The Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: 2013), Kindle edition, Loc 2344 of 5977.
  7. Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2012 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in partnership with The Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: 2013), Kindle edition, Loc 2320, 2326, 2327 of 5977.
  8. Dan Balz, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the future of elections in America (New York: Penguin Books, 2013-14), Kindle Edition, Loc 4892 of 8638.
  9. Copy of Stephanie Cutter’s July 1, 2012, letter to FactCheck.org
  10. Brooks Jackson and Robert Farley, with Eugene Kiely, “FactCheck to Obama Camp: Your Complaint is All Wet,” FactCheck.org, July 2, 2012
  11. Greg Marx, “The real question about Romney’s Bain career,” Columbia Journalism Review, July 23, 2012
  12. Glenn Kessler, “Mitt Romney and Bain: a Fact Checker collection,” Washington Post, July 20, 2012

Politicians attack the fact-checkers to deflect findings

Accusations of media bias are nothing new in political journalism. But those charges are particularly fraught for fact-checkers, whose roles require them to make factual determinations about the content of partisan statements.

Critics dedicate themselves to continuously mocking the contention that fact-checkers’ work is fair and unbiased. But rarely do these discussions get as openly hostile as they did in 2012 between the Republican Party of Virginia and that state’s PolitiFact team at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Times-Dispatch joined forces with the Tampa Bay Times’ national fact-checking service in October 2010. By 2012, state Republicans had become so frustrated with PolitiFact Virginia’s coverage that they issued a highly critical 87-page report documenting their concerns about the site’s biased treatment of the party and its supporters. The report began as “an open letter to the commonwealth” that accused the site of “showering… Republican politicians with suspiciously negative determinations” and using “highly subjective analysis and even opinion masquerading as ‘fact checks.'”1

The effort to discredit the fact-checkers would intensify a month later, when a conservative Virginia political website published a story about PolitiFact Virginia’s editor and his record of voting in Democratic primaries. But all of this had begun to bubble over publicly even earlier — a month after Virginia’s June 2012 primary, in which former Republican Sen. George Allen had won a four-way race for his party’s nomination to run for his old seat. Party leaders said they had tried complaining privately about PolitiFact’s coverage of state Republicans in a February meeting with the Times-Dispatch’s publisher and editor and in a follow-up phone call in April. Their main concerns were the “lopsidedly disproportionate PolitiFact examination” of the party’s candidates, elected officials and supporters, as their report later put it.

Republican leaders were frustrated with a tally of PolitiFact conclusions they said tilted against them and complained about a sliding scale when asked to back up their claims. The party’s July report reviewed the number of calls and ratings applied to Republicans versus Democrats and then included lengthy critiques of particular fact checks and the reporters’ reasoning.

Editor Warren Fiske responded with a post on PolitiFact Virginia and again in a lengthier message that ran in the Times-Dispatch a few days later.

He argued that the number of fact checks focused on Republicans during the first half of 2012 was a reflection of that year’s four-way fight for the party’s Senate nomination, in contrast to former Gov. Tim Kaine’s uncontested bid to be the Democratic candidate. It was “no surprise that during the first half of the year, we spent most of our time rating Republican statements,” Fiske wrote. “We follow the action.”

Fiske reviewed the 205 calls his team had made since the site launched in 2010 and found that the average grade was roughly the same for Democrats and Republicans alike. But he also noted that “Virginia is largely controlled by Republican politicians. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general belong to the party, as do eight of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both houses of the General Assembly are run by Republicans.”2

Little of that added up for the party leaders, since the state also had two Democratic senators. Nor did the response address another issue the Republicans had raised with the newspaper’s leaders — namely their concern that Fiske in particular was politically biased. While they did not address their issues with Fiske directly or publicly in their report, a senior Republican said they believed that the editor had been “co-opted into part of the Kaine campaign” and that the “subjective value judgments” he applied to his reporting made him fair game.

“You’re bringing yourself into the fray,” the senior Republican said. “If they’re on the field and they’ve got pads on, you’ve got to tackle them.”

The tackle came almost exactly a month after the state party’s report in the form of a story by the Washington Free Beacon. The conservative website reported that it obtained voting documents that showed Fiske “has a history of tilting left.”3 The Beacon did not say more about how it obtained the editor’s voting records, though such records are not hard to come by and are widely used in politics to direct phone calls, mailings and door-to-door canvassing. However, a senior state Republican said the state party had not shared any voting data with the Beacon.

A complicating factor about Virginia’s records is that no party registration is given. That means voters can cast ballots in either party’s primaries in any given election year, and primary participation is sometimes read as a proxy for party ID. The voting records the Beacon obtained showed that Fiske had voted in the Democratic primary “in all but one of the last 6 major election cycles” and in the Republican primary only in a year when the Democrat gubernatorial nominee ran unopposed.

The Beacon item was picked up by conservative bloggers across the state and trumpeted as evidence of the editor’s bias. This time, Fiske did not comment publicly. But his boss, Times-Dispatch editor Danny Finnegan, defended him in lengthy comments on the Beacon post and several other state political blogs that picked up the story.

Finnegan said Fiske had not voted in a party primary since becoming PolitiFact editor and noted that Republicans had held few primaries during the period for which voting records were available in the county where Fiske lived. He quoted from the newspaper’s professional conduct guidelines, which encouraged staff to vote, but prohibited being “active in politics” — for instance, “donating money or advice to political campaigns, not wearing political buttons, and not displaying campaign signs or bumper stickers.”

“So we don’t believe [Fiske’s] voting record indicates a bias,” Finnegan wrote. “We are also frustrated by the Republican Party’s attack on Warren and their attempts to discredit our work, which came after we spent hours listening to its complaints and responding to them.”4

Virginia’s fact-checkers weren’t alone in the spotlight. Around the same time as the public spat there, a different conservative site called Media Trackers began posting stories that listed the party registration of the journalists who wrote for the PolitiFact affiliate operated by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio. Media Trackers, a frequent PolitiFact critic, counted 12 registered Democrats and three registered Republicans among the Ohio site’s staff and contributors based on voting records it obtained from the LexisNexis commercial data and research service.5

“I do recall them making a run at us,” said Chris Quinn, who was the Plain Dealer’s assistant managing editor for news at the time. “We pretty much ignored them. Getting attacked by partisans is not that unusual anymore, so we take it in stride.”

As in Virginia, conservative bloggers across the state recirculated the Media Trackers’ reports. But while confrontations like these often rally partisans on one side or the other, they typically seem to end in draw.

In Ohio, the newspaper’s PolitiFact partnership ended in late 2013. But Quinn, who is now vice president of content at Northeast Ohio Media Group, the Plain Dealer’s digitally focused sister company, said that was a business decision and the news operation there still does fact-checking.

As for Virginia, Warren Fiske is still editor of the Times-Dispatch’s PolitiFact team and he said he was grateful for the backing from his boss and his colleagues. “I had a lot of support in the newsroom,” he said.

Virginia Republicans had no regrets about having taken their fight with the Times-Dispatch public. “We couldn’t make it any worse,” a senior Republican said. “They were already hammering on us…. What are they going to do — write more bad things about us?”

  1. Republican Party of Virginia, “To the Commonwealth of Virginia: A Comprehensive Analysis of PolitiFact Virginia’s Questionable Objectivity,” July 10, 2012
  2. Warren Fiske, “PolitiFact Virginia responds to the state GOP,” PolitiFact Virginia, July 10, 2012
  3. Bill McMorris, “Fisking Fiske’s Record,” Washington Free Beacon, Aug. 7, 2012
  4. A version of Finnegan’s response was posted as an update at the end of the Beacon story: Bill McMorris, “Fisking Fiske’s Record,” Washington Free Beacon, Aug. 7, 2012
  5. Jason Hart, “Liberal ‘Fact Checker’ Crushes PolitiFact Ohio’s Credibility,” Media Trackers, Aug. 16, 2012; Jason Hart, “At PolitiFact Ohio, Democrats Outnumber Republicans 4 to 1,” Media Trackers, Sept. 24, 2012

Some politicians simply shut out the fact-checkers

“Shooting the messenger” is an especially loud way for newsmakers to respond to a pesky news organization. Another approach is a lot quieter. So quiet, in fact, it means not even answering reporters’ questions.

In 2012, the Republican Party of Virginia’s public report on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s fact-checking unit said ignoring its reporters “would be justified in publicly indicting PolitiFact Virginia’s pattern of bias.” While leaving the decision to boycott the fact-checkers to each official and candidate, the party suggested “publicly refusing to participate in … their analyses unless and until such time the Richmond Times-Dispatch can substantively and publicly address the underlying concerns about their PolitiFact Virginia team’s lack of objectivity.”1

Republican Senate candidate George Allen took this tack — sort of. In reality, mixing both private and public channels, Allen’s campaign effectively “set up an elaborate system to keep communications open,” said Fiske, the Times-Dispatch’s PolitiFact editor.

The roundabout process began with a July 24 message on Allen’s blog from campaign manager Mike Thomas. Linking to the state party report, Thomas described the Allen team’s “growing concerns that PolitiFact Virginia was failing to live up to its claim of being an impartial referee that delivers objective analysis and rulings.” Now, the campaign manager said, PolitiFact was reaching out for information about statements Allen made at a debate a few days earlier.

“Due to Politifact Virginia’s past history,” Thomas wrote, “we thought we would let you, the public, decide whether the statements were factual. Below are the statements and the research that we believe backup the claims.”2

From then on, PolitiFact’s Fiske said, these kinds of posts became a way for the campaign to answer the reporters’ questions without actually answering them. “We would continue to send our inquiries to Allen’s campaign and instead of responding directly to us, they would post answers on their website with some verbiage to the effect of ‘look what PolitiFact is up to now,'” he said. “So even though they were not talking to us, they continued respond to all of our inquiries.” PolitiFact cited and linked to those posts in several stories.3

Political pros rarely go entirely incommunicado, since not answering a fact-checker’s question means not having a chance to tell their side of the story. But the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler recalled another example — a super PAC with whom he had difficult dealings during much of 2014. “They stopped speaking to me late in the campaign,” he said.

Kessler said the relationship became increasingly tense after he issued a series of back-to-back, multi-Pinocchio ratings about the group’s messaging. When the group stopped responding to his questions about their ads, he pressed for a reason. A senior staffer answered with a detailed complaint to one of Kessler’s bosses. The official wrote:

“Mr. Kessler is supposed to be doing a ‘fact check.’ Since I am not paid by the Washington Post, it is not my job to do his job. Our citations are listed on the screen and he can research them himself. And you will notice, I am not arguing Mr. Kessler’s analysis of the facts. I disagree with him on some, but that is his interpretation and since I didn’t provide the back up I can understand forgoing the right to complain on that front. … Again, pardon the bluntness. I have not found Mr. Kessler to be objective to work with so I made a conscious decision to stop working with him.”

(The person who sent the email did not respond to requests for an interview for this report. Kessler asked that the person not be identified since the email was sent privately and was not intended for publication.)

Kessler reviewed several more advertisements produced by the same super PAC, each time noting that its staff had not responded to requests for more information. In one case, though, he updated a fact check with a statement the group’s spokesman made to a different news organization.

Other fact-checkers could think of only a few organizations or politicians that had cut off communication. And spokespeople who worked for them declined to comment or did not respond to requests to discuss their thinking. “Thanks for reaching out,” wrote a former press secretary for a member of Congress who had a particularly fraught relationship with media fact-checkers. “I’d rather not share.”

PolitiFact national editor Holan recalled how that particular member of Congress “would never return a call… just ignored us.” But she added that political figures rarely take this tack with fact-checkers because it’s usually not in their interest.

Kara Carscaden, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign press secretary, suggested one reason the silent treatment might not be the best way to deal with fact-checkers: In the age of Google, fact checks have an especially long shelf life. “They become a quick point of reference for people,” Carscaden said. “You really want it to have your perspective in there.”

  1. Republican Party of Virginia, “To the Commonwealth of Virginia: A Comprehensive Analysis of PolitiFact Virginia’s Questionable Objectivity,” July 10, 2012
  2. Press Office, “Virginia Bar Association Debate and Politifact,” George Allen for U.S. Senate blog, July 24, 2012. Oct. 1, 2012, version preserved and recovered via Internet Archive
  3. Examples: Sean Gorman “George Allen says Tim Kaine tried to raise taxes on people ‘earning as little as $17,000,'” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 3, 2012; Nancy Madsen, “George Allen says U.S. was on path to balanced budget when he left the Senate,” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 7, 2012; Sean Gorman, “George Allen says the state government workforce grew when Tim Kaine was governor,” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 27, 2012

Politicians prepare evidence for fact-checkers

Of the various ways to respond to critical fact checks, perhaps the easiest is to simply modify or even drop a faulty message. But the most effective of all might be to establish internal processes and checks to make sure that political messages stand up to scrutiny in the first place. In many cases, a little preemptive precision is all it takes to make one’s pants practically fireproof — or to turn a “False” into a “True,” as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker demonstrated in a debate during the Republican’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Walker, his Democratic opponent and their combined supporters traded a continuous stream of jobs-related numbers and claims in that race, and journalists at PolitiFact Wisconsin seemed to write about little else. Between the start of the year and the time the two candidates met for their first debate in October, the fact-checkers based at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had examined two dozen jobs-specific statements. And of those 24 fact checks, 15 were rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire — including a False for a Walker TV ad that went up the day before the big debate.1

Given that record, the Wisconsin PolitiFact unit was a little surprised during the debate when the governor used a revised version of the same claim. This time, however, instead of saying the state had ranked third for job growth in the Midwest “in the last year,” as the TV ad had put it, Walker carefully specified a date range: from July 2013 to July 2014. He also clarified that the state ranked fourth in the more recent August-to-August data — just as PolitiFact had explained in its story the previous morning.2

“He was parroting our statement,” editor Greg Borowski said. “It was almost like he had gone back through and wanted to get things just so. … He went right through our rationale.”

Most fact-checkers can victoriously recall times when politicians they covered modified their rhetoric after being called out for a misstatement in one of their stories. Those events are one way to measure the impact that editorial truth-squadding has on politics. But for the people who work for those politicians and the other organizations that support them, the victories should also be measured by the negative fact checks they avoided. That process usually begins with research, either gathered by staff or consultants or by state and national parties.

It’s pretty time-consuming because you kind of go down the rabbit hole with these guys.

Neil Newhouse, the Republican pollster, does not write or produce ads for the candidates and other political organizations that hire his firm. His job is to test effectiveness of the language and messages that end up in their ads — but only after those lines of attack are rigorously inspected by political researchers and lawyers. “They are nitpickers,” Newhouse said of these behind-the-scenes, in-house fact-checkers. “It’s a negotiation. … They have to approve it before it can go in the field.”

This different kind of fact-checking process is especially important for third-party political ads (advertisements produced by anyone other than candidates and their campaign committees) since broadcasters can reject or yank those ads if they are found to be inaccurate.

Given all the internal fact-checking, Newhouse bristles when the press finds faults with ads because a fact is presented out of context. In this respect, political pros and the press sometimes look at “facts” through different lenses.

From Newhouse’s point of view, facts are facts and the context is an opponents’ problem. In other words, it’s not a campaign’s job to look at a fact “from the other guy’s point of view.” If, for instance, an ad accurately criticizes an opponent for a handful of votes, Newhouse said the accuser has no obligation to explain all the other times when the opponent voted the other way. Fact-checkers will say “we may not be telling the whole story,” he said. “Well, yeah, let the other guy do that.”

Those kinds of arguments may not win the day with fact-checkers. But reporters say they can tell when a political organization has at least done its homework — assembling data and other background information to establish their claims were factual. Mark Binker, a reporter who has done regular fact-checking segments for WRAL-TV in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area, said he saw a lot of that kind of preparation during that state’s close 2014 Senate race, when outside groups spent millions buying TV time on stations like his. When he called those groups with questions about their ads, Binker said most of them “expected it” and “had ready-mix responses” to support their claims. The ones who didn’t were the ones who “just don’t seem to care that much about whether something they put on TV is true or not.”

Large political operations that work at the national level — including party committees, independent advocacy groups and presidential campaigns — often appoint a spokesperson to deal specifically with fact-checkers. In the 2012 Obama campaign, deputy press secretary Carscaden got this role, in part because she had done opposition research and policy work for the Democratic National Committee, and in part because she had organized rapid-response communications for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

“It was clear early on that this [fact-checking] was going to be a large part of the world,” Carscaden said. “It was helpful to have a point person.” That said, she also acknowledged that the process of dealing with fact-checkers’ questions could be draining. “It’s pretty time-consuming because you kind of go down the rabbit hole with these guys.”

For smaller political teams at the state and local level, that process can be even more time-consuming. Garren Shipley, a former communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia, said that was certainly his experience the 2012 Senate race. “During that campaign, the requests for documentation from PolitiFact became a significant drain on campaign resources,” he said. “It almost turned into a legal discovery process.”

And the process does not always end once the journalists have made their call. Sometimes political operatives will continue to lobby and appeal, even after a fact check is published or broadcast. They’ll even try to get advance clearance on claims, especially when they are returning to a message or point that’s already been subjected to some level of criticism.

Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org recalled a conference call with a senior adviser to a president candidate after a number of national news organizations, including his, repeatedly questioned the accuracy of attacks on their opponent’s voting record. The question concerned the number of times the candidate’s opponent had voted for something in Congress — a number the fact-checkers said was inflated because it unfairly included procedural votes.

“What’s the right number?” Jackson recalled the adviser pleading, wanting to find a figure that the fact-checkers would accept.

“They don’t pay me to write your ads,” Jackson responded.

  1. Dave Umhoefer, “Walker sticks to claim on Midwest jobs growth,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, Oct. 9, 2014
  2. Tom Kertscher and Dave Umhoefer, “Burke, Walker wield truth as tool in first debate,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, Oct. 10, 2014

Lessons for journalists practicing fact-checking

Fact-checking is changing how people do politics. At its best, this reporting makes officeholders, candidates, parties, staff and supporters more cautious about what they say. It also provides independent, explanatory information that partisans use as a frame or point of reference to discuss complex issues.

At the same time, fact-checking can also provide something else for political professionals to fling, deflect or twist — another weapon and a source of partisanship and cynicism.

Just as politics is adapting to fact-checking, some fact-checkers are adapting to the world they cover. Sometimes this adaptation draws on the best elements of journalism. As an example, fact-checkers’ bloggy willingness to link to and cite one another’s reporting, even when they sometimes come to different conclusions, reinforces and spreads each other’s analysis and provides additional information to their audiences.

On balance, fact-checkers tend to be good about correcting their mistakes and updating findings — a necessary and minimum investment in credibility given their mission. But some could do more to elevate and explain those corrections and updates on their sites, especially for those in their audience who already read, saw or heard earlier versions of the stories.

Another inheritance from traditional newsroom culture is less healthy — an institutional reluctance to publicly defend journalism, the way Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Danny Finnegan did when he posted responses to bloggers in Virginia who were asking questions about the voting record of his PolitiFact editor. That does not mean media leaders should ignore serious questions about their journalists’ reporting or impartiality. But the rhinoceros hide required to oversee or run a fact-checking operation does not mean just letting the work speak for itself. Publicly explaining the reporting process and editorial decision making is important, even if it won’t always change critics’ minds.

It also is important to recognize that fact-checking is a more pro-active form of journalism that takes a reporter and a news organization beyond describing events. The news organization, by calling out what is true and what is not, is acting as something of an advocate — on behalf of the citizen rather than a partisan. Yet that raises the stakes and by degrees changes or elevates the journalistic role.

Beyond these fundamentals, there are other tools and practices journalists can use to increase the impact of fact-checking, and perhaps counter some of the negative effects detailed in this report.

What follows are recommendations — drawn from the research for this report and the advice of established fact-checkers — that will help journalists in a changing environment play that role more effectively:

Watch out for misuse of fact checks: As more and more politicians use and misuse media fact checks to make their points and to rebut critics and rivals, journalists need to monitor these statements even more closely.

Fact-checkers occasionally produce items correcting or challenging political advertisers or officeholders who mischaracterize their reporting. That’s what happened after a Republican presidential debate in 2011, when Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann asserted that PolitiFact had reviewed her performance at an earlier face-off and found “everything that I said was true.” PolitiFact looked back and found two ratings: a “mostly true” and a “Pants on Fire.” The candidate’s new claim about PolitiFact’s findings earned her another Pants on Fire.1

Many examples of political operations misusing fact checks that were referred to earlier in this report were found just by arbitrarily reviewing stories that happened to be cited in political ads. Others were found in the kind of follow-up stories suggested here, though some fact-checkers said there were more than they felt they could cover.

These meta-fact checks may feel a bit self-referential and risk picking fights with political players. But newsrooms need to police these references aggressively to try to keep the abusers honest and to defend the credibility and accuracy of their own reporting. In so doing, they may also help call attention to the importance and impact of their work. (There’s room for a journalism review or an independent media watchdog to lend a hand here, perhaps in a form that other fact-checkers could then help distribute.)

Keep context in context: Context matters when it comes to facts. A number may be correct and still be misleading. A partial quote may be accurate, but the full quote may say something different entirely.

In the days before the Republican primary in Nebraska’s 2014 Senate race, outside groups used partial quotes to portray two top candidates as being wishy-washy on repealing the Affordable Care Act. One group’s ad targeted Ben Sasse for saying the health care law was “an important first step” while another group’s ad went after Sid Dinsdale for saying the law had its “good aspects.” As FactCheck.org noted in back-to-back stories, both statements were taken out of context and did not accurately reflect either candidate’s opposition to the law.2

Many political advisers may think it’s their opponent’s job to tell the whole story (as Republican pollster Neil Newhouse put it above, “let the other guy do that”). But it’s the fact-checker’s job, too, even when that means making complicated distinctions and navigating tricky terrain. That can be especially difficult when an elected official takes credit or gets the blame for a particular policy outcome. Like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee claiming responsibility for a solar eclipse in the sky over King Arthur’s Court, these statements are rarely as clear as they seem.

Journalists who do this work quickly learn that politicians and their supporters will disregard and even try to discredit fact checks based primarily on interpretive, contextual arguments — dismissing them as differences of opinion and accusing reporters of bias. While those accusations come with the job, there are ways to make sure fact checks are less vulnerable.

PolitiFact founder Bill Adair explained that he and his colleagues made changes to their rating process before the 2012 election, in part to address outside concerns about the occasional overuse of contextual arguments. The change involved a series of questions that PolitiFact journalists now ask about any statement they are reviewing:

  • Is the claim literally true?
  • Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?
  • Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?
  • Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?3

Adair said these questions helped avoid unfairly declaring a factually true statement some flavor of false. At the same time, it left room for the journalists to note when the “ruling statement,” in PolitiFact’s terminology, overlooks other relevant information to make a misleading point.

FactCheck.org does not use the kind of true-false scale that PolitiFact and others do, but it does have a stylistic conceit for dealing with claims that may be “technically true, but that don’t tell the full story has its own.” As its editors explained, “We’re very careful to label out-of-context statements as ‘misleading’ or ‘potentially misleading’ rather than false.”4

There are other ways fact-checkers can take on the context question, especially when they know their reporting is likely to be mischaracterized or misunderstood. This matters most when reviewing a small detail from an ad or a debate — the kind of middle-tier fact-check that’s easily overstated or dismissed as nitpicking. Fact-checkers might explore more systematic and creative ways to show a statement or claim they are evaluating more fully in the context it appeared, especially if the claim is a relatively small part of a larger message. That’s why most fact-checkers usually include the full text of an ad script in their stories, as they also do with lengthy excerpts from speeches and debate transcripts.

The Washington Post’s occasional TruthTeller video segments take that a step beyond. Rather than just showing videos, their producers pause clips from ads and speeches to superimpose the fact-check. WNYC’s weekly public radio program “On the Media” went so far as to have its hosts heckle political statements and ads from movie theater seats in an animated series called “Media Scrutiny Theater” modeled after the cable TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” NPR and the Texas Tribune used a different cable show for inspiration — VH1’s PopUp Videos. Beyond the purely fun aspects of some of these videos was an effort to integrate fact checks with the source material, giving viewers another way to fairly evaluate the conclusions.5

None of that will prevent political players from using a fact check on a relatively small point to validate or challenge the entirety of a message or even the messenger. But knowing that’s how their work will be used, fact-checkers should continue to explore ways to help the audience better understand what they are actually checking.

Go for magnitude: Not every “false” is as false as another. That’s why fact-checkers need to find better ways to regularly tell voters which claims and statements matter most.

Thematic lists and compilations are one helpful approach. FactCheck.org, for instance, published collections for the 2014 campaign that rounded up the year’s “Medicare Mudslinging” and biggest “abortion distortions” plus an Election Day collection of the year’s “funniest, strangest and otherwise noteworthy ads.”6 But the audience could use a more regular if not persistent indicator of importance, especially given the steady stream of stories almost all news organizations feel they need to generate these days to maintain their presence in a 24/7 news cycle.

The news business continuously debates this need for speed, particularly the link between traditional ways of measuring online traffic and the frequency of publication. By nature of their work, dedicated fact-checkers typically spend far more time preparing individual stories than most other daily journalists do. And yet the need for a fresh headline can result in marginal fact checks — sometimes interesting or even amusing, but also unimportant and purely fleeting.

For the most part, fact-checkers try to avoid this speed trap. In its “basic principles” published online, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker feature declares it will focus on “the issues that are most important to voters. We cannot nitpick every detail of every speech.” Likewise, PolitiFact says its journalists ask whether a statement is “significant” when deciding what it statements it will cover: “We avoid minor ‘gotchas’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.”7

But readers accept and even appreciate an entertaining story — like one that PolitiFact Wisconsin posted after a TV interviewer asked Democrat Mary Burke which beer the gubernatorial candidate preferred: New Glarus Brewing Co.’s Spotted Cow and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s fact-checking team did not scrutinize Burke’s choice, but rather her claim that Spotted Cow was only available in Wisconsin. PolitiFact’s reporting rated that True. Even in a state where beer matters as much as it does in Wisconsin, it would be hard to say this fact check met PolitiFact’s “significance” test. And yet the “True” still counts on the site’s cumulative list of stories about her statements — one of only two “True” ratings the site awarded Burke during the 2012 race, as it happened.8

Even on matters of more substance, some issues are more significant than others. “True” and “False” doesn’t convey that — and trying to add that tier to a system like PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter would be difficult. As its creator Bill Adair put it, “Any time you introduce a measurement you introduce an element of complexity.” But fact-checkers might seek other ways to signal importance as well as factualness in their reporting, beyond the helpful lists of key fact checks many already compile. For the fact-check with rating systems, that could mean finding other ways to review statements that are marginal but interesting, like Burke’s beer knowledge, that do not use the same grading systems they usually apply to more serious and important questions.

Avoid matters of opinion: There have been times when fact-checkers have been drawn into debates over opinion, not fact, despite principles, policies and practices aimed at avoiding that. Fact-checking sites, particularly those that generally rely on rating systems, deal with claims that are based on opinions by publishing stand-alone articles that review key facts underlying an ongoing debate without taking a position on the claims of one side or another.

PolitiFact and its affiliates have published articles labeled “In Context.” These articles review and annotate a political statement at length, explaining factual references and linking to supporting material without issuing a Truth-O-Meter score. PolitiFact’s partners at the Austin American-Statesman used this template after a city council candidate with a chemistry background spoke about a study she said persuaded her that explosives planted in the Twin Towers contributed to the buildings’ collapse during the 2001 terrorist attacks. The nearly 2,000-word story included links to 30 sources, but no Truth-O-Meter rating.9

Likewise, the Post’s Kessler has on occasion dropped his Pinocchio-rating system, as he did when Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire asked questions about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s knowledge of security concerns before the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. “[W]e find ourselves checking an opinion,” Kessler concluded, noting the absence of concrete evidence to evaluate the senator’s claim. “[T]hat’s not enough for a Pinocchio. So, for now, we will not issue a rating.”10

Fact-checkers should talk even more regularly to their audience about the statements they are not reviewing and why, particularly matters of opinion. Not only would these stories add something to the public discussion of controversial political statements, it may well help their audiences better understand the difference between fact and opinion.

Going for ratings: Rating systems are powerful and provocative tools for drawing an audience into stories that often dwell on complicated and esoteric policy matters. Research published by the American Press Institute in March shows that readers prefer fact checks that include ratings.

But few topics rile people in politics more than fact-checking rating systems. For Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, the different grading systems are “cheapening the discussion” and practically invite campaigns and other political organizations to pummel one another with ratings he thinks are meaningless. “Serious fact-checkers are actually making themselves less valuable than they should be,” he said. If fact-checkers abandoned their rating systems, Elleithee said, “I would be willing to lose them as a political tool…. It would become less of a political weapon.”

Perhaps. But even FactCheck.org, which does not use a rating system, is cited in attack ads. Meanwhile, every other U.S. fact-checking site tracked in the Duke Reporters’ Lab early 2015 annual survey uses ratings of some sort. Those ratings come in a wide variety, especially among local fact-checking operations across the country. Cleveland.com and the Reno Gazette Journal both use 0-10 numeric scales, while the the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa and news partner KCRG-TV grade their facts on an A-F basis. In North Carolina, WRAL-TV devised a traffic light system (green, yellow, red) while local fact-checkers elsewhere have found other ways to brand an untruthful message — from the Sacramento Bee’s “outright lie” to Voice of San Diego’s “Huckster Propaganda.”11

Ratings are a way of signaling editorial authority. They also are an entry point — a easily understood invitation to what are usually long, in-depth articles that explore challenging topics.

“I embrace the idea that it’s marketing gimmick,” said Kessler, the Post’s Fact Checker. “It’s easy to remember.”

FactCheck.org’s founder Jackson acknowledged that ratings systems are “terrific reader engagement devices” that are also “easily quoted and repeated by candidates.” But he warned that all the meters and traffic lights and other systems can be “dangerous” metaphors when dealing with ambiguous questions. “It sometimes can get you into trouble, especially when you’re dealing with literally true statements that are nevertheless completely misleading.” Overall, ratings “have their advantages and disadvantages,” but Jackson said he is relieved not to have to engage with sources in what he called “Pinocchio bargaining.”

Should fact-checkers use ratings and if so which kind? The answer depends most on each news organization’s particular editorial goals and an increasing body of research that can help editors and producers determine which approach is most engaging and persuasive to the specific audience they want to reach. But even sites that use them will sometimes set their ratings aside when they are not appropriate for the story at hand — a healthy practice that avoids dog-wagging.

Fishing where the fish are: News is fleeting, but fact checks have a shelf life that give them more lasting value to readers, viewers and listeners — assuming those people can find them. The only thing that keeps news organizations from making the most of this value seems to be the industry’s historic ineptitude at marketing its work, as well as its journalists’ cultural swooning whenever anyone tries to talk about “marketing” in the newsroom.

Most fact-checkers are good about reusing their reporting when an issue reappears in a campaign or political debate. A new piece of legislation or a flurry of advocacy or campaign advertising can be an excuse to write and publish a story that gathers up previous reporting on the same subject, summarizing and typically linking back to the earlier work. As mentioned before, that can involve compiling annotated lists and collections of all past fact checks on topics of ongoing debate, as PolitiFact and the Post Fact Checker did with their work amid the confusing 2012 campaign back-and-forth over Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital.12

Those compilations and rehashes are especially useful for regular readers, viewers or listeners. But they also are a chance to connect with a new audience that may suddenly have an interest in a topic that’s new to them. For instance, detailed roundups on the 2012 Benghazi attack assembled by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and the Post’s Fact Checker all turned up prominently in a Google search for “Benghazi facts” more than two years after they were written.

Marketers instinctively capitalize on that kind of interest, using low-cost search and social media advertising to promote their wares. Fact-checkers should do much the same, targeting people’s searches, interests and conversations rather than just passively depending on their “search optimized” headline-writing skills and favorable algorithmic winds. Compared to the expensive promotions and advertising blitzes that, say, a typical newspaper company will still pay for to attract or keep a few hundred print subscribers, the efforts proposed here would be an extremely cost-effective way for a news organization to get its reporting directly to audience that literally self-identifies as wanting to know more about something its journalists are already doing. Plus the newsroom’s topical expertise and sense of timing is a critical ingredient to making this kind of outreach work.

Segmenting the audience: If fact-checkers want to expand their reach and impact, they need to experiment with different ways of presenting their reporting. That means journalists need to think clearly about whom their reporting for.

FactCheck.org calls itself a “consumer advocate,” and it’s clear which consumers they don’t mean. Like most fact-checkers, its editors are quick to say that they aren’t reporting for the campaigns or elected officials they cover; they work for the voters.13 But which voters? Partisan voters who tend to vote one way or the other, no matter what the media has to say about their candidates? Decided voters who want to make a case for their side or against the other? Undecided voters who are trying to sort out conflicting claims?

Most fact-checkers, if only for reasons of daily reality, rely on one-size-fits-all story forms to try to serve all of the above. But those daily story forms may not be the right ones to connect with a particular audiences that any given fact-checker aspires to reach.

That is not to say fact-checkers should bend their reporting or conclusions to serve particular partisan audiences. But with academic research showing that some people tend to reject “corrective” information that challenges their strongly-held beliefs, there may be ways to use those same findings to create new forms of fact-checking stories. In some cases, that might simply mean the wording used to help distribute the work via social media — for instance, asking questions in headlines rather than answering them, even in defiance of editorial arguments that question-mark headlines are overused and often oversold.14 In other cases, that might mean presenting the same reporting organized in different structures or formats designed to help the audience draw its own conclusions.

This is a tough assignment for newsrooms that have little bandwidth to devote to fact-checking, but it’s an idea worth testing to try to expand the reach and influence of this journalism. And it does not necessarily require new technology or templates to make happen.

One great example of such a story comes via Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan — one of the scholars whose work has helped fact-checkers understand how readers absorb their reporting. Writing about the 2012 Bain controversy for the Columbia Journalism Review, Nyhan cited a “choose your own adventure”-style news essay posted by Boston news site BostInno. Walter Frick, who was BostInno’s business editor at the time, was clear in his introduction that he had already chosen his own adventure and did not pretend to be impartial on the questions about Romney’s time at the investment firm. Frick stated upfront that he did not think the issue mattered as much as the policy differences between the Republican nominee and the president. But “as long as we’re forced to keep hearing about this,” he wrote, “I figured I’d offer my own step-by-step guide to the facts, tied into whether or not you need to actually care, depending on your assumptions.”

The article used basic HTML to allow people to answer Frick’s questions about their opinions at the end of each factual summary. By letting readers navigate his well-chosen collection of facts and conflicting arguments, Frick not only conveyed key details but illustrated the reasons why partisans on both sides would see those details so differently.15

Invest in R&D: Another way to extend the reach and impact of fact-checking is to invest in the tools that journalists need to get their work more directly and immediately in front of their audiences, as well as engaging those audiences in the reporting process.

Intercepting political messages for voters with real-time fact-checking — in ads, in their mailbox and in-person — turns out to be no easy task. But that hasn’t stopped fact-checkers and their allies from trying. The 2012 SuperPAC App is one recent example. Funded by the journalistically minded John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this app let iPhone users identify political ads with Shazam-like audio recognition software. The app then found matching information about the ad’s funder and, when available, related fact checks. That is, assuming you could fire up the ad and listen long enough to find a match — no easy feat with a 30-second TV ad.

Another Knight grant helped the Washington Post develop a prototype of its TruthTeller app (related to but different from the previously mentioned video series of the same name). The prototype uses speech-to-text technology to match the audio from political messages with related fact checks. But given the limits of speech recognition and natural language processing, the ultimate fact-checking app remains on the drawing board.

Another line of interest aims to bring the audience directly into the fact-checking process. Sites such as the recently launched Fiskkit, for instance, enlist readers to annotate and explain passages of content. A key to any such venture will be developing models that prevent well-meaning “citizen fact-checkers” from being overwhelmed by partisans, especially if political organizers decide platforms such as Fiskkit can become productive grounds for persuasion and recruiting.

But the potential for professional fact-checkers is great too, especially as they develop means to give engaged users directed, factual assignments they can do, regardless of the users’ personal beliefs and political leanings. To some extent that’s already happening. Some TV and radio ads that fact-checkers have analyzed were never announced to the press or posted on campaigns’ official online channels. Instead they came to the attention of the journalists because attentive TV viewers captured the videos and uploaded them to YouTube. Broader efforts to gather and catalog increasingly targeted and personalized political communication, from political junk mail and leaflets to targeted digital communication, is a great opportunity for newsrooms, but one they cannot do without the help of well-organized “citizen militias.”

Conclusion

The appetite for more participatory media is something political pros can’t avoid noting — including a strong desire to figure out what and who to believe.

“Voters are extremely cynical about the messages they get,” Democratic strategist Anita Dunn said, pointing to the way the public now taps “their own personal networks” and goes online to “ferret out” facts. She recalled how during the first Obama-Romney debate in 2012, references to the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson budget commission and the Dodd–Frank act of 2010 quickly turned those two somewhat esoteric Washington phrases into trending terms on Google.16

For Dunn, that was an example of how “voters actively look for what they see as independent, unbiased sources of what’s true and what’s not true.”

If true, that would have delighted my old boss, David Broder, the Washington Post columnist whose push for more press scrutiny of TV ads after the 1988 presidential campaign helped set the stage for the fact-checking efforts of today. He also would have been among the most eager to see journalists find ways to use technology to recruit their readers, viewers, listeners and users into the fact-finding process. In a 1979 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Broder urged journalists to remember — and remind readers — that “the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours.” Then he added:

“If we did that, I suspect, not only would we feel less inhibited about correcting and updating our own stories, we might even encourage the readers to contribute their own information and understanding to the process. We might even find ourselves acknowledging something most of us find hard to accept: that they have something to tell us, as well as to hear from us. And if those readers felt that they were part of a communications process in which they were participants and not just passive consumers, then they might more easily understand that their freedoms — and not just ours — are endangered when the search warrants and subpoenas are visited on the press.”17

Fact-checkers do not like to evaluate predictions, but I would rate Broder’s forecast “True.” Just as Broder rightly saw the emergence of fact-checking as an important development in political journalism, the ongoing importance of this work will depend on how news people recognize and adapt to new political tactics, engage their audiences, and make their reporting relevant, interesting and accessible.

Those efforts will keep fact-checkers on the side of the voters — which means the politicians will have to pay attention, too.

  1. Louis Jacobson, “Michele Bachmann says “PolitiFact came out and said that everything I said was true” in last debate.” PolitiFact, Dec. 15, 2011
  2. Robert Farley, “‘Fact’ Lifted Out of Context in Nebraska,” FactCheck.org, May 8, 2014; Robert Farley, “Same Tactic, Different Candidate in Nebraska,” FactCheck.org, May 9, 2014
  3. For a behind-the-scenes look at he PolitiFact process, including the four questions, see Andrew Phelps, “Inside the Star Chamber: How PolitiFact tries to find truth in a world of make-believe,” Nieman Lab, Aug. 21, 2012
  4. “Not Just the Facts,” FactCheck.org, Nov. 19, 2009
  5. See “Media Scrutiny Theater” by WNYC’s On the Media and NPR’s “Pop-Up Politics”
  6. Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely, “Midterm Medicare Mudslinging,” FactCheck.org, Oct. 3, 2014; Brooks Jackson, “Abortion Distortions 2014,” FactCheck.org, Sept. 26, 2014; D’Angelo Gore and the FactCheck.org Awards Committee, “Our 2014 FactCheck Awards,” FactCheck.org, Nov. 4, 2014
  7. “About the Fact Checker,” Washington Post; Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan, “The Principles of PolitiFact, PunditFact and the Truth-O-Meter,” PolitiFact, Nov. 1, 2013
  8. James B. Nelson, “Mary Burke says Spotted Cow beer available only in Wisconsin,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, Aug. 25, 2014
  9. Dylan Baddour, “In Context: Laura Pressley’s ‘something was planted’ in World Trade Center,” PolitiFact Texas, Nov. 4, 2014
  10. Glenn Kessler, “Hillary Clinton and the Aug. 16 cable on Benghazi security,” Washington Post, April 10, 2013
  11. Duke Reporter’s Lab database of global fact-checking sites
  12. Glenn Kessler, “Mitt Romney and Bain: a Fact Checker collection,” Washington Post, July 20, 2012; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Checking the facts about Romney and Bain Capital,” PolitiFact.com, July 17, 2012
  13. “Our Mission,” FactCheck.org
  14. See “Betteridge’s law of headlines,” Wikipedia and the helpful Twitter feed it inspired: https://twitter.com/yourtitlesucks
  15. Brendan Nyhan, “Unanswered questions in the Romney/Bain controversy,” Columbia Journalism Review, July 17, 2012; Walter Frick, “When Did Romney Leave Bain? Choose Your Own Adventure,” BostInno, July 16, 2012
  16. Chart, “Top 4 Rising Search Terms During Wednesday’s Debate,” Google Politics & Elections, Oct 4, 2012; Note: The terms were 1.) Simpson Bowles, 2.) Dodd Frank, 3.) Who is winning the debate, 4.) Big Bird.
  17. David Broder, Behind the Front Page: A candid Look Inside How the News Is Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 14-15

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.