Catharine Richert’s boss once told her that she had the hardest job in the newsroom.
As the sole reporter working on Poligraph, Minnesota Public Radio’s fact-checking feature, Richert investigates claims made by state politicians and rates them Accurate, Misleading, Inconclusive or False. She publishes her fact-checks on the MPR website and discusses her fact-checks on the air Friday afternoons.
Five years after Richert started it, Poligraph has become a well-known part of MPR’s political coverage. Although refereeing Minnesota’s often sharp-elbowed politics is no easy task, Richert has managed to make Poligraph a success.
“MPR has been able to build a very specific brand around what we do that’s very recognizable to our audience,” she said.
Despite the limitations of running a one-woman show, Richert believes that being the single voice gives her credibility and consistency on the radio.
“I think with radio that one single voice reporting on something is all that much more important.”
Poligraph began as a joint initiative between MPR and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in 2010. Richert, a grad student at the Humphrey School at the time, worked for Poligraph part-time while in school. Her previous experience working for PolitiFact in Washington, D.C. helped prepare her for the job. When she graduated in May 2011, MPR offered her a full-time position.
MPR’s affiliation with the Humphrey school ended, but Richert kept the feature going.
To determine which claims to check each week, Richert discusses possibilities with her editor. Their most important criteria is that the claim was in the news that week.
“Other than that, we fact-check things that make us curious,” she said. “Most weeks, we try to check one Republican and one Democrat, and we’re pretty strict about that.”
Although the three other reporters on the MPR politics team keep their eyes open for ideas, Richert and her editor are the primary contributors.
They began with three ratings — Accurate, False and Inconclusive — and added Misleading.
She said that Poligraph also started incorporating their sourcing directly into the story, instead of listing it at the end, and fine-tuned her radio appearances.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot better about being clear and concise on the air and just hitting the top things people need to know,” she said.
Richert said that fact-checking in Minnesota is different than at the national level because she can have more impact.
“Occasionally, people will just stop using a talking point after we do what we do,” she said. “It happens a little more often here than it did when I was working in Washington.”
She has found that politicians in Minnesota are more responsive to fact-checkers than the politicians she dealt with in Washington while working for PolitiFact.
“People here are far more willing to be transparent about where they’re getting their information,” she said. “It’s rare when someone doesn’t respond to an email.”
Richert noted that Minnesotans are especially engaged in politics and want to hold their politicians accountable.
“People are really interested in policies,” she said. “They want to know the details behind some of the things that people say.”
Richert said that most of the reaction to Poligraph has been positive and that people enjoy the feature on the radio.
“I certainly get my share of angry emails,” she said, “but I think that at the end of the day, people appreciate being more well-versed in what the facts are whether they agree with them or not.”
Richert said the success of Poligraph shows that it doesn’t take a giant staff to hold politicians accountable.
“You don’t have to have this elaborate set-up to fact-check,” she said. “You can simply do it through reporting — and that’s what all reporters should be doing.”