Lessons learned from fact-checking 2018 midterm campaigns
After monitoring political messaging, students see the need for accountability journalism more than ever
By Catherine Clabby – November 20, 2018 | Print this article
Five Duke undergraduates monitored thousands of political claims this semester during a heated midterm campaign season for the N.C. Fact-Checking Project.
That work helped expand nonpartisan political coverage in a politically divided state with lots of contested races for state and federal seats this fall. The effort resumes in January when the project turns its attention to a newly configured North Carolina General Assembly.
Three student journalists who tackled this work with fellow sophomores Alex Johnson and Sydney McKinney reflect on what they’ve learned so far.
Lizzie Bond: After spending the summer working in two congressional offices on Capitol Hill, I began my work in the Reporters’ Lab and on the N.C. Fact-Checking Project with first-hand knowledge of how carefully elected officials and their staff craft statements in press releases and on social media. This practice derives from a fear of distorting the meaning or connotation of their words. And in this social media age where so many outlets are available for sharing information and for people to consume it, this fear runs deep.
Yet, it took me discovering one candidate for my perspective to shift on the value of our work with the N.C. Fact-Checking Project. That candidate, Peter Boykin, proved to be a much more complicated figure than any other politician whose social media we monitored. The Republican running to represent Greensboro’s District 58 in the General Assembly, Boykin is the founder of “Gays for Trump,” a former online pornography actor, a Pro-Trump radio show host, and an already controversial, far-right online figure with tens of thousands of followers. Pouring through Boykin’s nearly dozen social media accounts, I came across everything from innocuous self-recorded music video covers to contentious content, like hostile characterizations of liberals and advocacy of conspiracy theories, like one regarding the Las Vegas mass shooting which he pushed with little to no corroborating evidence.
When contrasting Boykin’s posts on both his personal and campaign social media accounts with the more cautious and mild statements from other North Carolina candidates, I realized that catching untruthful claims has a more ambitious goal that simply detecting and reporting falsehoods. By reminding politicians that they should be accountable to the facts in the first place, fact-checking strives to improve their commitment to truth-telling. The push away from truth and decency in our politics and toward sharp antagonism and even alternate realities becomes normalized when Republican leaders support candidates like Boykin as simply another GOP candidate. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project is helping to revive truth and decency in North Carolina’s politics and to challenge the conspiracy theories and pants-on-fire campaign claims that threaten the self-regulating, healthy political society we seek.
Ryan Williams: I came into the Reporters’ Lab with relatively little journalism experience. I spent the past summer working on social media outreach & strategy at a non-profit where I drafted tweets and wrote the occasional blog post. But I’d never tuned into writing with the immense brevity of political messages during an election season. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project showed me the importance of people who not only find the facts are but who report them in a nonpartisan, objective manner that is accessible to an average person.
Following the 2016 election, some people blamed journalists and pollsters for creating false expectations about who would win the presidency. I was one of those critics. In the two and a half months I spent fact-checking North Carolina’s midterm races, I learned how hard fact-checkers and reporters work. My fellow fact-checkers and I compiled a litany of checkable claims made by politicians this midterm cycle. Those claims, along with claims found by the automated claim-finding algorithm ClaimBuster were raw material for many fact-checks of some of North Carolina hottest races. Those checks were made available for voters ahead of polling.
Now that election day has come and gone, I am more than grateful for this experience in fact-finding and truth-reporting. Not only was I able to hone research skills, I gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of political journalism. I can’t wait to see what claims come out of the next two years leading up to, what could be, the presidential race of my lifetime.
Jake Sheridan: I’m a Carolina boy who has grown up on the state’s politics. I’ve worked on campaigns, went to the 2012 Democratic National Committee in my hometown of Charlotte and am the son of a long-time news reporter. I thought I knew North Carolina politics before working in the Reporter’s Lab. I was wrong.
While trying to wrap my head around the 300-plus N.C. races, I came to better understand the politics of this state. What matters in the foothills of the Piedmont, I found out, is different than what matters on the Outer Banks and in Asheville. I discovered that campaigns publicly release b-roll so that PACs can create ads for them and saw just how brutal attack ads can be. I got familiar with flooding and hog farms, strange politicians and bold campaign claims.
There was no shortage of checkable claims. That was good for me. But it’s bad for us. I trust politicians less now. The ease with which some N.C. politicians make up facts troubles me. Throughout this campaign season in North Carolina, many politicians lied, misled and told half truths. If we want democracy to work — if we want people to vote based on what is real so that they can pursue what is best for themselves and our country — we must give them truth. Fact-checking is essential to creating that truth. It has the potential to place an expectation of explanation upon politicians making claims. That’s critical for America if we want to live in a country in which our government represents our true best interests and not our best interests in an alternate reality.