Politifact is best known for its ‘truth-o-meter’, a scale that rates the accuracy of statements made by politicians and lobbyists. At the top end, accurate assertions are labeled ‘true’ while at the bottom people who tell barefaced lies are named and shamed: ‘pants on fire’.
Politifact was launched in 2007 as part of the St Petersburg Times. It proved so popular that it now has several subsidiary state websites and is affiliated with nine other papers around the US. In the wake of its success a number of other US publications, including The Washington Post, have started fact-checking services. Politifact was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Bill Adair will be speaking at the World Editors Forum, which will be held in Vienna from 12 – 15 October, in a session on ‘Looking beyond the article,’ exploring new ways to tell news stories.
WAN-IFRA: Politifact focuses on fact-checking statements made by key players in American politics. What do you think the most important shortcomings are in the way news stories are reported in the mainstream media – is it just lack of accuracy?
ADAIR: I would say two things. Firstly, I would say there is not enough accountability journalism, which is what Politifact tries to do. I think in the past we’ve let politicians get away with exaggerations and falsehoods because we assumed that our readers would do their own fact-checking. I think that’s a flaw in journalistic thinking: I think it’s important for us to give people the tools they need to make sense of their government and the political debate and so I think increasingly that means we have to tell them what’s true and what’s not.
I would say one other flaw is that there’s too much emphasis on the politics, on who’s up and who’s down, who’s winning and who’s losing and not enough on the substance of what the things would really mean for voters. Politifact is really a creative way of covering issues and public policy. I think of it like getting people to eat their vegetables. They don’t want to eat their vegetables but if you can make the vegetables tasty they will eat them.
WAN-IFRA: What does the expansion of news on social media mean for journalistic accuracy? Are more falsehoods circulated this way, or is it a way to monitor the press?
I think you have to use Twitter and Facebook properly. Obviously, as we’ve seen most recently with some of the reaction in the United States to the killings in Norway, people will jump to conclusions quickly and use whatever media they can and get things out there that may not be accurate. So I think we have to be wise about how we use these. But in a way, Twitter is no different than a breaking news report in radio or television. You have a limited amount of space or time and it’s tempting to put things out there that aren’t thoroughly reported.
WAN-IFRA What are the most interesting reader responses that you’ve had to Politifact?
We get lots and lots of reader feedback. The biggest one lately has been readers overwhelmingly telling us they want us to change the truth-o-meter. The truth-o-meter has had, since we started, six levels and the level between half-true and false has been called barely true. And we have received thousands of emails from readers who support the idea that we floated that we should change it; instead of calling it ‘barely true’ we’re going to call it ‘mostly false’.
WAN-IFRA: What’s the difference for readers between those two terms?
The problem with ‘barely true’ is that the statement is mostly not true but by putting the word ‘true’ in it, many people felt it was misleading. And so we had many instances over the years, most recently one where one of our state Politifact sites ruled a statement ‘barely true’ from the National Republican Congressional Committee and they issued a press release, the Republicans did, that says “Politifact finds the statement ‘true’”. That wasn’t what we found, we had said it was ‘barely true’. So we turned around and we rated the new statement ‘pants on fire’ and said ‘that’s ridiculous’.
Our readers are very smart and thoughtful and funny and we get a lot of great ideas from them. I would say that probably one fourth to one third of the facts that we check are suggestions from our readers.
WAN-IFRA: With so many news sources (tv, print, radio, online papers, social media, news bloggers) any given news story can generate a massive range of responses. How can a journalist pick out the important facts?
ADAIR: You have to figure out what messages are really getting widespread distribution. If somebody makes a claim in one blog and it ends there that’s not the kind of thing we would fact-check. But if that blog post is tweeted repeatedly or posted on Facebook many times or used in emails that are copied and forwarded then we’re more likely to fact check it.
Let me step back for a second and say I think the whole concept of media has changed dramatically. In the 1960s in any country there were a few television networks and probably some large newspapers and they were the filters that decided what information people needed to read or to hear. What’s happened in the internet age is that those filters, the legacy media, are not as important any more because you may get information from your newspaper or your television network still, but you probably also get information from blogs and internet news sources and even emails that are forwarded to you by your crazy uncle who has various conspiracy theories. And so it’s important for us as journalists, particularly as fact checkers, to realize the filter is gone.
WAN-IFRA: What are your tips for journalists who want to look beyond the main terms of a story?
ADAIR: Probably the biggest one is to look to original sources. One of the things that we require at Politifact is that when our reporters are researching an article, they will find the original voting record, will find the original speech that someone gave in congress, and the original report, rather than relying on news accounts of those things. And I think what I have seen in looking at a lot of journalism is that journalists have gotten accustomed to doing their work quickly and not digging as deeply as they should.
WAN-IFRA: You commented in an interview in the past (on CNN) that fact checking ‘takes a commitment’ and news organizations ‘have to be willing to commit reporters and editors to journalism that takes longer’. Do you think news groups will make this commitment?
ADAIR: It depends on the will of the news organization. I work with some newspapers in the United States that really impress me with their commitment to not just Politifact but to great journalism. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is one paper that really puts an emphasis on great journalism. But there are other newspapers in the United States that are not willing to make that commitment and that’s sad because I think what we have shown with Politifact is that readers love the truth-o-meter. Readers love this kind of accountability journalism.
WAN-IFRA: Your website has a more humorous tone than other fact-checking websites like factcheck.org. How has that gone down with readers?
ADAIR: Generally they really like it. When we started we wanted to have a website that was not too serious and that people would get a chuckle out of every now and then. Obviously we take the journalism seriously but we try to mix it up and present it in such a way that its fun and accessible and I think that’s really important. Too much political coverage is too dry and boring and its why a lot of people would rather watch TMZ and get the latest Hollywood news. I think we have found the right balance with Politifact that is both substantive but also a little cheeky.