Fact-Checkers Speak on the Record
WASHINGTON—The practice of fact-checking politicians’ claims has become a highly popular feature in today’s newspaper. Originating with American journalists, it has become an international movement in journalism.
On April 15, two of the best known fact-checkers in the nation appeared at a forum, “Who’s Afraid of the Fact-Checker?”, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to speak candidly on their experiences of fact-checking, and their perceptions on how their fact-checking is affecting politics in America.
Fact-checking has become increasingly popular overseas. Now there are about 80, said Glenn Kessler, who manages the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker.
“Frequency of fact-checking stories increased by more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2008, and by more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2013,” said Jane Elizabeth, senior research project manager for the American Press Institute (API), using data conclusions from API’s Fact-Check Project.
“[Fact-checking] is growing but there aren’t enough news organizations fact-checking, especially at the local level,’ said Elizabeth.
In the 2014 election, “fact checking certainly became part of the conversation,” states the Washington Post website for fact checking. When it was to their advantage, politicians would use fact check articles and ratings to enhance their status and knock down their opponents in what fact check analysts call “weaponizing” fact checking.
Does it make the politicians more truthful or at least tone down their rhetoric? In other words, does it change the behavior of politicians? The fact checkers at the forum insist that’s not their purpose.
“We are journalists. So we feel our primary purpose is to inform readers, and then they take that information and make decisions,” said Angie Holan, editor of PolitFact, a leading, highly regarded fact-checking website.
PolitFact ascertains the accuracy of statements from the White House, Congress, candidates, and advocacy groups, according to its website. PolitFact is independent of any particular political party or ideology, and is a division of the “Tampa Bay Times,” the largest newspaper in Florida, which has long covered presidential races.
When the 2008 presidential election produced a number of questionable claims in speeches, press releases, and campaign ads, PolitFact started in 2007 to cover the presidential race as an aid to voters.
The Tampa Bay Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its fact-checking of the 2008 presidential election.
Holan said that the procedure is to take a statement of interest to the public, research it, and at the conclusion of the report, assigned a rating, from the “Truth-O-Meter.” Ratings are True, Mostly True, Mostly False, False, and, when misrepresentation of the falsehood is particularly egregious, a statement is rated Pants on Fire.
Not all fact checkers assign a rating. One of the best known, the nonpartisan, nonprofit factcheck.org, funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes statements for their accuracy and leaves the reader to make the judgement of degree of truthfulness.
Elizabeth said that readers prefer to read fact-checking that have ratings, even though they also complain about them.
The most recent instance of a rating of Pants on Fire was assigned to the claim heard in social media that Facebook plans to institute a ban on all posts related to religion after criticism of atheism groups. No truth to it whatsoever.
An example in Sunday, April 19, 2015 PolitFact, declares a statement that Hillary Clinton made that all her grandparents were immigrants as false. The analysis sympathized that she would “not be the first person to confuse family lore with the cold facts of her roots,” but it was nonetheless false.
In another recent example, PolitFact looked into the statement that President Obama said, “Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion.” It rated it as mostly true but said it overstated Iran’s military spending.
The Fact Checker
The Washington Posts’ The Fact Checker has a comparable rating system that uses Pinocchios, the puppet whose nose grows when he tells lies. Four Pinocchios is equivalent to PolitFact’s Pants on Fire, what Glenn Kessler, defines as “Whoppers.” One Pinocchio means selective telling of the truth, but no outrageous falsehood. Two Pinnocchios means “some omissions and/or exaggerations.” Three Pinocchios means “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”
If the claim is the unvarnished truth, it earns a rating of a Geppetto Checkmark, which Kessler said is rarely given out. Kessler said that he “struggles a lot” in deciding between two or three Pinocchios.
Generally speaking, the ratings are the most controversial aspect of the fact-check. A good example was Rand Paul’s claim that he had a biology degree. Kessler gave it three Pinocchios. Though he earned a medical degree from Duke University, which is higher than a B.A., Kessler wrote Paul did not complete his undergraduate degree at college.
For some reason, this one generated more reader comment, arguing for one side or the other, than any other in the history of the column.
“We try our best to be consistent, but by its nature the rating is somewhat subjective,” states Kessler on The Fact Checker Web site.
Kessler said that The Fact Checker was also started in 2007 by Michael Dobbs. It was revived in 2011 to become a permanent feature of the Post, with at least one a day on the Post’s Web site and a column in the Sunday print edition. When he took over the work, Kessler had a journalism career spanning more than three decades covering foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.
Not Changing Behavior
“You can’t expect fact checking to change the behavior of politicians,” Kessler said. He agreed with Holan that their work is to inform voters so they can make rational decisions. He said it was ridiculous to expect fact checkers to reduce the misleading statements of the politicians.
“It doesn’t matter who the political party is. Both political parties will stretch the truth if they believe it will advance their interest,” he said.
“They definitely won’t back off of a claim they really like, and that they feel is working for them.”
In the 2014 Kentucky senate race, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes said in ads and speeches that incumbent Mitch McConnell was responsible for the shuttering of a coal power plant and that he and his wife pocketed $600,000 from the “enemies of coal.”
Kessler gave Grimes’ claims four Pinocchios and yet she still repeated claims in television ads, digging in, personally speaking before the camera. (PolitFact and factcheck.org came to the same conclusion on Grimes’ claims.) McConnell used the Washington Post’s fact-checking in his advertising, making his own claim that Grimes’ claims were “totally false.”
‘Weaponization’ of Fact-Checking
The above is an example of the weaponization of fact-checking, said Mark Stencel, journalist and currently researching fact-checking at the American Press Institute. Stencel said that his research found that the work of nonpartisan fact checkers is frequently misportrayed in TV ads.
Kessler said, “I try not to focus on who is making the comment,” and only examine the facts.
He sees himself as a reporter whose main goal is to inform the public. He said he was not an editorial writer trying to change people’s opinions. He sees his contribution as addressing the big issues, such as the budget and Medicare, and that the analysis of the statements are just providing “entry points” for a wider discussion.
Kessler acknowledged the political stakes of his fact checking publications. He gave the example of the work he did of ascribing four Pinocchios to the campaign ads of the Super Pac of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Kessler and Holan said that they always try to contact the person who made the claim to get their side. In this case, the communications person, annoyed by the poor ratings, told Kessler, “I’m just not going to answer any more of your questions.”