Fact-Checking in the Age of Trump

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Fact-Checking in the Age of Trump

The business of ferreting out candidates' whoppers is booming, and no wonder.

NBC host Matt Lauer took flak for failing to aggressively fact-check Donald Trump's statements at the Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, 2016. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Glenn Kessler was going to take the night off from The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog and just watch Donald Trump’s long-awaited immigration speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31.

But after 30 minutes, he couldn’t help himself. He emailed his colleague, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, and said, “I really think we should do an instant fact-check.” Then he turned to his wife and said, “I’ll be up late.”

By the next day, a host of news and fact-checking outfits had scrutinized Trump’s speech for inaccuracies or misleading statements, including NPR, PolitiFact, the AP, Factcheck.org, ABC News and more.

Despite frequent laments about this campaign being conducted in a fact-free zone, the nonpartisan fact-checking world is exploding. And the record-breaking number of visitors to fact-checking sites proves there is a voracious desire for the truth. So does the outrage that’s erupted over NBC host Matt Lauer’s failure to fact-check Trump’s statements at a candidate forum on Sept. 7.

“I hear these comments in the media that fact-checking doesn’t matter this year and I couldn’t disagree more,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, which started in 2007. “Fact-checked information has become a major part of the coverage this year, whereas before it was relegated to the back pages.”

Last November, when NPR surveyed its audience about what it wanted in political stories, 96 percent said they wanted information that verified what candidates said. Another measure: That instant fact-check Kessler and Ye Hee Lee churned out drew 1,900 comments.

Besides demand, what’s driving the increase in fact-check journalism is imitation. “Other news outlets see how we and others have done it and see they can do it too,” said Holan. But that’s not all: “The other reason is you have a candidate like Donald Trump, who has significant problems with accuracy,” she added.

PolitiFact and PunditFact are run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida. In 2009, PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its fact-checking coverage of the 2008 election.

Today, there are 41 active fact-checking efforts in the US that look into statements made by elected officials, candidates, party leaders and political activists, according to Mark Stencel of the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, which studies fact-checking and fact-checks campaign ads. (Most fact-checkers are journalists.)

Eleven of the 41 focus on national politics, and in particular this year, on the presidential race. The Big Three — The Post, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org — do it year-round, looking into White House statements, issues such as the Affordable Care Act or other policies that generate a lot of talk. The remaining 30 are state and local.

“Our audience is people interested in factual information about American politics from a source with no stake in the issue other than accuracy and truthfulness,” said Holan. “It’s critical that we are nonpartisan and don’t take sides.”

In 2010, PolitiFact created its first state office in Texas to fact-check local politicians. Today, it has 20 state chapters working with local media organizations.

Voters can now get analysis from multiple local fact-checkers in at least nine states.

— Mark Stencel, Reporters' Lab at Duke University

As an example, PolitiFact partnered with ABC15, a TV station in Phoenix. After Trump’s immigration speech, ABC15 ran a segment using PolitiFact to counter Trump’s claim that there are 30 million undocumented immigrants in the US. The accepted figure, according to experts, is between 11 and 12 million.

“Voters can now get analysis from multiple local fact-checkers in at least nine states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of which are holding US Senate races this year,” wrote Stencel in a story on the Reporters’ Lab.

In California, there are three fact-checking organizations vetting local politicians — The Sacramento BeeVoice of San Diego and Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.

Worldwide, there are 96 fact-checking projects in 37 countries.

Because of increased interest during the presidential conventions, The Post last month launched Fact-Check Friday, using social media sites to distribute a roundup of articles from the week.

And it’s not just mainstream news outlets doing it. Snopes.com fact-checks politicians as well as wild rumors. Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Trevor Noah runs “What the Actual Fact?” a serio-comic attempt at correcting misstatements. Stephen Colbert of CBS’ Late Show does something similar, as does John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO.

CNN made news when it corrected Trump on its lower third caption after the Republican presidential nominee said he had never advocated that Japan get nuclear weapons, even though he did.

It would be easy to dismiss fact-checking as an exercise in futility, particularly in the age of Trump. But that would be a mistake, said Stencel, former NPR digital managing editor.

“We have two well-known presidential nominees whose trustworthiness and truthfulness have been in question for years, if not decades — in part because fact-checkers and other journalists have scrutinized both of them,” Stencel said. “So saying that these two candidates’ ongoing evasiveness and truth-twisting means fact-checking does not work or is irrelevant is like blaming firefighters for a string of arsons.”

And here is the fact checkers’ dilemma: By fact-checkers’ own measures, Trump and Hillary Clinton are operating in such different leagues on the truthiness scale that any semblance of even-handedness would actually be … not true.

A recent PolitiFact study notes “that 27 percent of Clinton’s statements were mostly or completely, pants-on-fire false, compared with 70 percent of Trump’s.” Or consider FactCheck.org’s recent parsing of the candidates’ performances at that forum Lauer moderated.

Trump and Clinton are operating in such different leagues on the truthiness scale that any semblance of even-handedness would actually be … not true.

The hunger for well-researched facts from a source without a dog in the fight is causing journalists to more closely examine, debate and codify the methods and ethics of fact-checking. Holan wrote a column in 2014 on the seven steps to better fact-checking.

And different fact-checkers employ different methods for reaching and presenting their conclusions.

Some use a rating system. The Post uses “Pinocchios” to evaluate a statement. One Pinocchio is “a selective telling of the truth” and four, the highest, is a “whopper.” “I will readily admit that Pinocchio ratings are a marketing gimmick,” said Kessler. “We are in the business of selling newspapers. Pinocchios are a great way of summarizing your final core judgment.”

PolitiFact’s equally cheeky ratings go from “True” to “Mostly True” to “Half True” to “Mostly False” to “False,” and if it’s really bad, “Pants on Fire.” (See statements that earned a “Pants on Fire.”)

FactCheck.org doesn’t do ratings. “As a longtime newspaper person I can understand wanting to shorthand it and say ‘Pants on Fire,’ or ‘Mostly False,’” said Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org. “But for us, it doesn’t work. It’s really subjective whether it’s two or three or four Pinocchios and I don’t want to get in an argument with the campaign.”

As fact-checking has matured, some fact-checkers altered their methods: When Kessler first started six years ago, he would, as a courtesy, give the public figure about to be rated a heads-up. Grade-grubbing ensued.

“I started getting plea bargaining over Pinocchios,” he said. “One Cabinet secretary told me I was crazy, that what he said was worth only one Pinocchio. I said, three. He kept badgering and then said, ‘OK, it was bad. It was a two, but no way was it a three.”

Kessler kept it at three. And has stopped giving heads-ups.

The whole enterprise has come a long way since 2003 when former CNN reporter Brooks Jackson joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center and began exploring politicians’ tortured relationship with the truth. He launched FactCheck.org, the grandfather of fact-checkers, with political communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Today, the six-person foundation-funded operation is seeing unprecedented traffic on its site.

“We set a record in 2015 with pageviews that were the highest since we’ve been measuring pageviews starting in 2011,” said Kiely. “We are already way ahead at this point in the year over last year. So we are easily going to set a new record in terms of readers.”

The Post won’t release numbers but Kessler noted that from July 2015 to July 2016, unique visits to the newspaper’s Fact Checker blog have increased 477 percent. “The August numbers are a new monthly record, up 40 percent over July and July had been a record for us in terms of unique visits,” he said.

How fact-checkers decide what to investigate is subjective, but typically follows what’s making news — such as Trump’s immigration speech or Clinton’s email scandal.

“The way all fact-checkers work is to go to the campaign or committee or whoever made the statement,” said Kiely, “and ask where is the support for the claim being made. Sometimes the campaigns will push back to explain their positions. We also go to nonpartisan organizations to get their analysis. Then we write the item based on the materials they provide and independent research.”

The Clinton campaign has a dedicated staffer to deal with fact-checkers’ inquiries. Trump does not and is less responsive, say fact-checkers. “If there’s nothing to back up the statement and it seems fictional, usually the response is silence,” said PolitiFact’s Holan, adding: “I’m not just talking about Trump.”

Does all this effort make a difference? Do candidates change their tunes after their facts (or lack of them) are vetted by nonpartisan groups?

Mostly, they don’t, say fact-checkers interviewed — though Holan noted that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has corrected himself after a fact-check, and has publicly admitted he worries about being “Politi-Facted.”

The man who beat Bush for the Republican presidential nomination is less sensitive. “One of the noteworthy things about Trump is, even though he’s constantly fact-checked for his wild misstatements, he almost never corrects or stops saying them,” said Kessler, who joined The Post’s fact-checking operation after a career reporting on foreign affairs and US government.

But that’s beside the point. Fact-checkers aren’t focused on the candidates. They do it for the general public and the historical record. They see their jobs as more about shedding light than “gotcha.”

“We don’t set out to change the behavior of candidates during the campaign,” said Kiely. “Then we’d be incredibly frustrated. We are just trying to get information to the people who want it. There is a great demand for factually correct information.”

Including from journalists, who often rely on fact-checking organizations in their reporting, said Holan. And fact-checks can become campaign issues. Politicians themselves use them, citing opponents’ negative reviews in campaign ads or stump speeches, a phenomenon so widespread it has a name: the weaponization of fact-checking.

“I burst out laughing at how ridiculous it is to say fact-checking doesn’t matter,” said Kessler. “It’s nice if politicians change their language. But we write the fact-check to inform voters, citizens, readers. To allow them to have a better understanding of policies and how the government works. What people do with that information is up to them.”

Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard is an award-winning journalist and expert on the media and media ethics. The former ombudsman for NPR, she recently returned from two years in Afghanistan where she worked with Afghan journalists and the US Embassy. Follow her on Twitter: @Ombudsman.

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