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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Importance of Fact-Checking Politicians


Bill Adair, Creator and Editor of PolitiFact
Tampa, Florida
August 28, 2012




 11:00 A.M. EDT

TAMPA CONVENTION CENTER, 333 SOUTH FRANKLIN STREET

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I’ll give you a quick explanation of how I got here and who I work for. I work for PolitiFact, which is a fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times, which is the largest newspaper here in the Tampa Bay area and also the largest newspaper in the state of Florida. It is a unique newspaper in the United States in that it is owned by the Poynter Institute. It is not part of a large chain, corporate chain, the way many American newspapers are. And that allows us to be a little more nimble and to try new things. So when I went to my editors in 2007 and said hey, let me start a fact-checking website, they were very willing to do that. That’s something I think that at some American newspapers would be difficult, so I was very fortunate that the culture at my newspaper was supportive of trying new things and innovation.

So a quick little bit of background on me. I have worked for the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times, for 23 years. And for the last 15 years, I have been in the Washington bureau and have covered the White House, have covered Congress. I was an aviation reporter for a while, so I wrote a book about a plane crash investigation.

In 2007, I felt like I wanted to try something different both for personal reasons but also for the fact that I thought that journalists who cover American politics need to do more fact checking, and I felt like I needed to do more to hold elected officials accountable for what they’re saying. And so I went to my editors, proposed a website, and even in the original concept we had a rating system, a device that you may have seen if you’ve looked at to PolitiFact.com, the Truth-O-Meter. And so what we do at PolitiFact is take statements by American politicians and by talk show hosts and pundits, we research them and then rate them for accuracy, from the true to false, and then we have our lowest rating, Pants on Fire, which is based on a phrase you may be familiar with where children will say, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”

We’re very happy to see that our approach has inspired many other fact-checking websites around the world, particularly in Europe. There are sites that we have inspired in France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands. And we have one feature we call the Obameter which rates the campaign promises of Barack Obama from the 2008 campaign. So we collected all of things that he promised, we put them in a database, and then we researched them to see how he’s doing. And we call that the Obameter and we rate them Promise Kept, Promise Broken, In the Works, Stalled, Compromise. And that site has also inspired similar sites around the world. In France there’s one that just got started to check the promises of President Hollande and there’s also one in Egypt called the Morsi Meter that is tracking the campaign promises of President Mohamed Morsi. We’re very excited about that. We’re thrilled to see that our approach has inspired journalists around the world, and we want to do what we can to help. So I’m very honored to be here today and talk to you.

I’ll tell you a little bit more about the start of PolitiFact and why I think it’s so important. In American politics, like politics, I’m sure, in your countries, it’s always been accepted that politicians are going to exaggerate and that sometimes they’re going to make false statements. And that’s always been sort of the expectation about politics. There’s the old saying that, “How do you know a politician is lying? Because his lips are moving.” And it’s just been accepted that we know that if politicians are talking, they’re probably stretching the truth to at least some degree.

And yet in American journalism we didn’t do enough to verify when – to verify a fact, to hold elected officials accountable. And so the fact-checking movement actually got started relatively recently in terms of the history of American journalism. It began in the early 1990s, spurred by a columnist at The Washington Post named David Broder, who’s a very famous political columnist who died last year. And he, in the late 1980s, after the 1988 campaign, wrote a series of columns saying that journalists need to hold candidates accountable for what they say, particularly in commercials and TV ads. And so that led to a movement in the 1990s toward fact-checking of campaign commercials, but that movement kind of lost energy by the year 2000. I think journalists were afraid of being called biased, and so even when they did the fact checks, they were often not conclusive. They would say, well, on the one hand conservatives say X and on the other hand liberals say Y, but they wouldn’t make a conclusion and say that statement is false. And that’s because I think they were afraid to make a conclusion for fear that they would be called biased.

So that was pretty much where things stood until 2003, when a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, started FactCheck.org. And that was really the first website that did any substantial fact checking. And they started in 2003. They fact-checked the 2004 election, and they did very good work, and they inspired me.

What we did that was different was we felt that you needed to do more than just write a lengthy article about a statement, that you needed to help people, you needed to do it a more lively way. So that’s why we created the Truth-O-Meter. And if you look at our website, you’ll see that is very much – it is very webby; it’s very much a product of the web. So you can click and you can see all of the Pants-On-Fire ratings, or you can see all of the True ratings, or you can see all of Barack Obama’s ratings, or you can see all of Barack Obama’s Pants-On-Fire ratings. So we built PolitiFact very much as a native feature on the web. It’s not simply taking content from a newspaper and pasting it on the web.

We’ve gotten some very good feedback. We’ve won a lot of awards. We won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for national reporting. We’ve won some other awards for being pioneers in web journalism, and we’re very proud of that. And today, if you – I don’t know how many of you are based in the United States. If you are, you’ve probably heard us discussed, you’ve heard our work discussed. And what happens, as you might expect with our fact checking, is both sides love us except when they hate us. And so they will cite our work when it suits their purposes.

And case-in-point, yesterday we were cited very favorably by Paul Krugman, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, who cited work that our state site had done on Chris Christie, who – the New Jersey Governor, who will be the keynote speaker tonight. That same Paul Krugman has been very critical of us over the past year, and to me this just shows that when somebody agrees with us, they’re going to hold out our work as an example of why they’re right; when they disagree with us, they’re going to attack us. And so that’s what the American political discourse is all about, and we’re happy to be part of it.

Let me tell you finally about our state operations, and then I’ll take some questions. We – to give you an idea of the scope of PolitiFact, PolitiFact National, which is what I’m in – well, I’m in charge of the entire PolitiFact network, but PolitiFact National, which just fact-checks primarily statements in the presidential campaign and by national figures – PolitiFact National has four reporters and two editors and then two interns that do some writing and do some kind of research, so a total staff of about eight. We also have 11 state PolitiFact sites that employ a total of 30 PolitiFact journalists. So in total, we’re at, like, 36 – 38 if you include the interns – fulltime PolitiFact journalists around the country.

So around the country, the way it works is that newspapers partner with us, pay us a licensing fee to be PolitiFact Wisconsin or PolitiFact Ohio. And we train them how to do PolitiFact journalism, how to do a Truth-O-Meter rating, and then we host their content on their own page of PolitiFact. So for example, if you go to PolitiFact.com/Florida, you’ll see the Florida site, which is written by journalists at The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

That has worked really well. It has surprised me in a lot of ways. We set it up – we were very much inspired by the fast food industry in setting up the PolitiFact network, because we realized we have a very valuable brand and we want to make sure that if we allow somebody to make our hamburgers, so to speak, that they could really hurt our reputation if they made a bad burger, if they gave a rating that was wrong or used journalism that didn’t meet our standards. So I spent some time researching how McDonald’s and Subway franchise and maintain quality standards. And so PolitiFact runs, in a way, sort of like a fast food chain.

So with that, why don’t I open it up to questions, be happy to answer anything you want.

QUESTION: Hello, Tuomas Niskakangas from Helsingin Sanomat, Finland. Do you ever compare your work with other fact checking websites like, for example, what Glenn Kessler is doing, and find out that you’ve come to a very different conclusion on the same statement by a politician, for example?

MR. ADAIR: Yes. We are very aware of what our friends who do fact checking are writing. Glenn and Brooks Jackson at FactCheck.org and I periodically have lunch. We read each other’s work and we respect each other’s work. It’s rare that we disagree much. And if you look at, for instance, a statement that we rate false or “Pants On Fire,” the odds are likely that Glenn is going to give it four Pinocchios and that FactCheck.org would say that it is false or whatever. They don’t actually have a ratings system. But generally, we agree.

That’s not always the case. In fact, The Washington Post wrote about an example yesterday where we said a statement was true, and CNN, in a fact checking article, said it was nearly false. And The Washington Post analyzed our work and analyzed the CNN work and said that they believed – this is Erik Wemple, who is a media blogger – that he believed that we did more research and that we reached the proper conclusion.

And that happens from time to time, and I think that’s okay and I think that’s healthy. I mean, this is interpretive work, and so we are doing research and reaching a conclusion, but I think it’s natural that in a human endeavor like this, we’re not always going to agree completely, but we do most of the time.

Other questions? Yes.

QUESTION: Good morning. Marta Torres from La Raza newspaper from Spain. I have read this morning that the Democrats are running ads linking Romney to Akin’s comments about the legitimate rape. You can comment on that?

MR. ADAIR: We haven’t fact-checked those ads yet. We are – what’s interesting, the Democrats are very much portraying the Republican position on abortion as the position of Todd Akin. And for example, we did fact-check on Sunday. Charlie Crist, the former governor of Florida, said that the Republicans have included the Akin amendment in their party platform. And we found that Todd Akin, a congressman from Missouri, had no input at all into the party platform. Their point was that the party embraces the same restrictions on abortions that Congressman Akin does, but we found that was a stretch because the party platform actually is silent about whether to have exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the – and the – whether the life of the mother is in jeopardy. So we rated that half-true. But it’s – I think we’ll be hearing that a lot from the Democrats as they try to take Akin, who has now been criticized by many Republicans, and make it look like he – like the party has his position.

QUESTION: Stephane Bussard, Le Temps newspaper. Do you actually have a common feature in terms of distortion of information? And second question: Did you notice any kind of evolution in terms of coming up with wrong information – wrong datas over the last 20 years?

MR. ADAIR: When you say common feature, what are you referring to?

QUESTION: Is – are there always the same kind of wrong information coming –

MR. ADAIR: Oh yeah. They definitely use the same tactics repeatedly. And so if – we’ve done 6,000 fact checks, and if you were to analyze them, I think you could break them down into a few particular areas. And sometimes, like the – a recent one involves the Romney claim that President Obama has ended the work requirement in welfare and they base this on a memo that they say shows this. And this is the classic kind of falsehood that we get from both sides where they take one small truth, if it’s a truth, or at least one thing and then they draw sweeping conclusions from it. I call it connecting the dots. They’re trying to connect the dots to make a picture where the dots really don’t support that picture. So that’s the most common thing we see.

And the Obama campaign has done it too on abortion where they have tried to portray Romney as having – as wanting to ban all abortions, when he has made clear that he is opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. So that’s the most classic thing.

As for trends over the last 20 years, I think the biggest thing that is a trend is the explosion in media sources. There are so many places where people get political information that that allows falsehoods to spread more quickly. So for instance, in the 2008 campaign, one of the biggest ways that false information spread were chain emails. Somebody gets an email, they forward it to everyone they know, many of those people forward it to everyone they know, and suddenly that message goes viral. And this was obviously not a factor before about 2004, and I think the technology spreads falsehoods very quickly now. There was an old Mark Twain line when Mark Twain was alive at the turn of the century in 1900 that a falsehood can go all around the world before the truth gets its shoes on, and that is so much more true today. And so I think that’s the biggest thing.

On the other hand there is more fact checking than ever before and more and more news organizations are embracing their own fact checking. And so I think that’s a good thing. But we got a ways to go to catch up with the falsehoods.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian, Tahrir, Egypt. My question is related from – starting from now on in the next 10 days, it’s politics. And most of the politicians either lie or they politicizing facts. How you, as a small group of people, you are going to follow what is said in fact checking? The second thing, which is related to this politician, over the last 10-15 years, fact checking was even -- was used by political organizations or activists to take the people public opinion in this direction or that direction. How you as an organization or a group of people, you are trying to be – avoid or be immuned against this politicization?

MR. ADAIR: Great question. So the process is much – in terms of us covering the conventions is much more involved than anything we’ve ever done before. So we have – in addition to our national fact checkers, we have several of the state fact checkers who are working with us tonight who will be fact-checking Governor Christie’s speech and whatever. So – and that’s a very involved process that involves, first, looking for what we’re going to check – so we have interns who are watching the TV shows and looking through transcripts – and then editors who are looking for the most significant claims, so we can fact-check them. And our goal in picking them is to pick claims that are significant, that are being seen or heard by the most people and that answer this very simple test: When someone hears it, do they say, “Really? Is that true?” And so our goal is to answer that question. So if you hear something and you think, oh, that’s probably true, then we’re not going to probably fact-check it. But if you hear something and you wonder if it’s true, we’re going to fact-check it. So that answers that.

As for the politicization of our work, it’s an inevitable byproduct of what we do. It’s natural that when we make a rating, we’re going to make somebody happy, and we’re going to make somebody mad. And the people who are happy are going to politicize it. And if you saw, the Obama campaign came out with a funny video on Sunday that referred to this remark that the Romney campaign advisor, Erik Ferhnstrom, said about how in the – after the convention, it’s going to be like an Etch A Sketch, the toy, and you shake it up, and it’s clear and you can start again. So the Obama campaign put out this funny video about that, and they had an Etch A Sketch breaking into a million pieces and making fun of Romney. And then at the end, it said – and it was done like a movie advertisement; what are the critics saying about the Etch A Sketch strategy? Four Pinocchios. And then it had The Washington Post fact checker, Pants On Fire, and then it said PolitiFact, and then the screen burst into flames. And that’s natural that they’re going to use our work, and we don’t have any objection to that as long as they state it accurately.

Now, we have challenged the Obama campaign. I don’t know that we’ve had this case with the Romney campaign. But we’ve challenged the Obama campaign when they have misstated our work. One time they gave this kind of sweeping statement about how we had rated the campaign promises that just wasn’t supported by the facts. So we’re okay with that.

I probably – I think I have time for one more question. Yeah.

QUESTION: My name is Fouad Arif. I’m the bureau chief of the Moroccan News Agency in Washington. My question is: Do you have any metrics to check and evaluate the effectiveness of the fact-o-meter? Say in the example for – say, take the example of somebody gets swift-boated. Do you – how much time does it take to get the fact out there and to repair the damage done to this person, for example?

MR. ADAIR: No, I don’t have metrics, nor do I want to have metrics. I feel like we’re journalists, and our goal is to inform people. We’re going to provide the information, and it is up to them to decide if they agree or disagree or to weigh it in their decisions. So my goal is not to change people’s mind. It’s just to inform them and let them decide. And there are some people in my business – Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania, who founded FactCheck. She believes we should be more aggressive. And she wants – she has a sister website to fact-check called FlackCheck that urges people to call TV stations and tell them to take off false or misleading ads. And I love Kathleen. I think she’s a pioneer. But this is one thing where we disagree, and I think that that goes beyond the role of the journalist.

There’s some interesting research that’s been done and that is being done on the effectiveness of our fact-checking by a professor at Dartmouth named Brendan Nyhan. And if you want to pursue any of that, you should talk to him. He’s very smart, and he’s done a lot of research on this. But I just – my goal is to inform, and that’s as far as I’m going to go. If other people want to take it farther, they’re welcome to.

 

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