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Finally, fact-checking is the new black

It’s been seven years since PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize. Thirteen years since FactCheck.org launched. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker published its first fact-check in 2007.

But it’s taken the 2016 election, and decades of political lies, to move fact-checking into the household-word neighborhood.

As manager of the American Press Institute’s accountability and fact-checking program, and as a longtime journalist, the term has been a word in my household for a while, of course. Same for many of my work friends.  But lately, fact-checking seems to “have a currency as a word in a way it didn’t before” among the general public, a colleague told me the other day.

In the Sunday comics this week, Garry Trudeau cartoon-ized fact-checking. And on Monday night’s The Daily Show, the program’s “political correspondent” quizzed Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler on food facts.

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Even VH1 — yes, Video Hits 1, the slightly more mature cousin of MTV yet with a similar number of Axe ads — blogged about the entertainment value of fact-checking.

What. Is. Happening.

And why is it happening now? I have some thoughts on that. But first let’s take a look at the fact-checking floodgate that unexpectedly opened around Monday night’s presidential debate.

People couldn’t stop mini-debating about whether moderators should be fact-checkers at political debates. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was still complaining about fact-checking the next day, and you could argue that fact-checking is not typically something he dwells on.

And during the debate, Hillary Clinton invoked fact-checkers three times (which is twice more than anyone mentioned the word “democracy,” FWIW).

The venerable, 111-year-old Canadian magazine Maclean’s and even The Onion published fact-checks of the debate.

Of course, the fact-checking veterans also did their jobs, and many — like Bloomberg TV who provided on-screen fact-checking when other networks wouldn’t, and NPR who created a hugely popular annotation feature — did it in extreme fashion.

A Bloomberg spokesman didn’t have anything quantitative to report about their debate fact-checking efforts — Bloomberg isn’t a Nielsen client, so viewer numbers aren’t publicly available. But take a look at the numbers from other fact-checkers:  

  • In terms of web traffic, debate-day was NPR’s best day ever. That is until Tuesday, which became its new best day ever, due to follow-up coverage of the debate. On debate day through Tuesday, NPR’s fact-checking content got 7.4 million views from more than 6 million users, along with 16,400 content “shares” using NPR.org’s share tools, said NPR publicist Ben Fishel. On Tuesday, 1 in 5 people who clicked on NPR’s annotated debate transcript read the entire 40-page document — a completion rate that is “something I’ve never seen, not only here but anywhere I’ve ever worked in journalism,” NPR developer David Eads told me.
  • The debate also sparked two days of record traffic at PolitiFact. The site had more page views on the day of the debate than any other day in PolitiFact’s 9-year history, said executive director Aaron Sharockman. “That record lasted one day. We beat it Sept. 27 and crossed more than 2 million page views,” Sharockman said in an e-mail. PolitiFact also reached 2.26 million people on Facebook on Monday, and added 18,500 followers in less than 24 hours to their brand-new Twitter account.
  • At The Washington Post, traffic to debate-night fact-checking was more than double the traffic from previous debates in this election cycle, Kessler said. He added that, in terms of unique visitors, the Post’s live fact-checking of Trump’s acceptance speech in July remains the Fact Checker blog’s biggest live event — “more than three times the entire best month of the 2012 [election] cycle,” Kessler said.  

  • FactCheck.org’s site suffered an untimely crash near the start of the debate and is being investigated, according to managing editor Eugene Kiely. So traffic numbers aren’t available. But Kiely noted that a fact-checking video produced in the wee hours Tuesday morning — in conjunction with the Political TV Internet Ad Archive — went viral and received 1.3 million views on Facebook alone.  
  • Journalists at Univision’s new Detector de Mentiras got a huge boost from this week’s debate coverage, said Alejandro Fernandez Sanabria, the project’s data journalist. While their typical Facebook post reaches around 150,000 people, this debate post reached nearly 415,000, had 1,225 reactions and was shared 168 times. The project’s Twitter account also grew by 550 followers during the debate.

People have asked me over the past few days: Is Donald Trump responsible for this fact-checking boom?  My answer is, no, not precisely. Trump is perhaps an iconic figure for the product of fact-checking; if fact-checking were a doughnut, he might be the neon “HOT NOW” sign.

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Flickr Creative Commons

As Kessler told me, “I think it would have been as big even without Trump, but because he says so many wild and crazy things, it has helped spark additional interest in the fact checks as well.”

Then there’s the math. The popularity of fact-checking journalism has been boosted by the sheer number of fact-checkable statements, certainly. Candidates are spending more money than ever in history on advertising and other messaging.  More money = more statements made by politicians = more opportunities to fact-check.

Secondly, there are more fact-checkers these days in part because more media organizations have discovered this type of journalism is popular with audiences. Our research at the American Press Institute supports this. It’s a good business decision.

And another reason: Leading up to this election, fact-checkers (and journalists in general) have gotten better at distributing their work. The old-school belief that “If I write it, they will come” has been replaced with a new energy for marketing in many ways, on many platforms, using new technologies and new partnerships.

Yes, as NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben wrote this week, many people don’t chose to “expose themselves” to fact-checking. True, and some people don’t choose to expose themselves to any kind of journalism. They bump into it — in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, Instagram, push alerts, the video playing on the teeny screen in the taxi.

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And many fact-checkers are providing those “bumping” opportunities on a larger scale.  At The Washington Post,  Michelle Ye Hee Lee posts fact-checks on Snapchat.  At PolitiFact, Sharockman attributes at least some of the organization’s election-night success to partnerships with NBCnews.com and Scripps television stations.

What surprised NPR digital editor Amita Kelly about debate night was the “big appetite for sharing.”

“More than I’ve ever seen, people were screenshotting [the debate fact checks] and sending it around,” she told me.

Because people were sharing the annotations specifically, “I think we can definitively say they were coming for the fact-checking,” said Kelly’s colleague Eads.

And that’s already propelled them to start work on something new for the next debates. “The most important thing on our radar is making the fact-checking more sharable,” Eads said.

And after the election? Sharockman believes that “fact-checkers are desperately needed to help sort it all out for readers,” not only during election-year politics but far beyond, he said.

“I hope all the fact-checkers popping up now will stay around after Nov. 8.”

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