PolitiFact at 15: Lessons about innovation, the Truth-O-Meter and pirates
Yes, the Truth-O-Meter is a gimmick. But 15 years later, it's still effective. Just don't look for "Barely True."
By Bill Adair – August 22, 2022 | Print this article
Fifteen years ago, I worked with a small group of reporters and editors at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) to start something bold: a fact-checking website that called out politicians for being liars.
That concept was too gutsy for the Times political editor. Sure, he liked the idea, he said at a meeting of editors, “but I want nothing to do with it.”
That was my first lesson that PolitiFact was going to disrupt the status quo, especially for political journalists. Back then, most of them were timid about calling out lies by politicians. They were afraid fact-checking would displease the elected officials they covered. I understood his reluctance because I had been a political reporter for many years. But after watching the lying grow in the early days of the internet, I felt it was time for us to change our approach.
Today, some political reporters have developed more courage, but many still won’t call out the falsehoods they hear. PolitiFact does. So I’m proud it’s going strong.
It’s now owned by the Poynter Institute, and it has evolved with the times. As a proud parent, allow me to brag: PolitiFact has published more than 22,000 fact-checks, won a Pulitzer Prize and sparked a global movement for political fact-checking. Pretty good for a journalism org that’s not even old enough to drive.
On PolitiFact’s 15th birthday, I thought it would be useful to share the lesson about disruption and a few others from my unusual journey through American political journalism. Among them:
Gimmicks are good
The Truth-O-Meter — loved by many and loathed by some — is at times derided as a mere gimmick. I used to bristle at that word. Now I’m fine with it.
My friend Brooks Jackson, the co-founder of FactCheck.org, often teased me about the meter. That teasing culminated in a farewell essay that criticized “inflexible rating systems” like our meter because they were too subjective.
I agree with Brooks to an extent. Summarizing a complex fact-check to a rating such as Half True is subjective. But it’s a tremendous service to readers who may not want to read a 1,000-word fact-check article. What’s more, while it relies on the judgment of the journalists, it’s not as subjective as some people think. Each fact-check is thoroughly researched and documented, and PolitiFact has a detailed methodology for its ratings.
Yes, the Truth-O-Meter is a gimmick! (I once got recognized in an airport by a lady who had seen me on TV and said, “You’re the Truth-O-Meter guy!”) But its ratings are the product of PolitiFact’s thorough and transparent journalism. It’s a gimmick with substance.
Empower the pirates
I was the founding editor, the guy with the initial ideas and some terrible sketches (my first design had an ugly rendering of the meter with “Kinda True” scribbled above). But the editors at the Tampa Bay Times believed in the idea enough to assign other staffers who had actual talent, including a spirited data journalist named Matt Waite and a marvelous designer named Martin Frobisher.
Times Executive Editor Neil Brown, now president of Poynter, gave us freedom. He cut me loose from my duties as Washington bureau chief so I could write sample fact-checks. Waite and Frobisher were allowed to build a website outside the infrastructure of the Times website so we had a fresh look and more flexibility to grow.
We were like a band of pirates, empowered to be creative. We were free of the gravitational pull of the Times, and not bound by its rules and conventions. That gave us a powerful spirit that infused everything we did.
Design is as important as content
We created PolitiFact at a time when political journalism, even on the web, was just words or pictures. But we spent as much energy on the design as on the journalism.
It was 2007 and we were an American newspaper, so our team didn’t have a lot of experience or resources. But we realized that we could use the design to help explain our unique journalism. The main section of our homepage had a simple look — the face of the politician being checked (in the style of a campaign button), the statement the politician made and the Truth-O-Meter showing the rating they earned. We also created report cards so readers could see tallies that revealed how many True, Half True, False ratings, or whatever a politician had earned.
The design not only guided readers to our fact-check articles, it told the story as much as the words.
Twitter is not real life
My occasional bad days as editor always seemed more miserable because of Twitter. If we made an error or just got attacked by a partisan group, it showed up first and worst on Twitter.
I stewed over that. Twitter made it seem like the whole world hated us. The platform doesn’t foster a lot of nuance. You’re loved or hated. I got so caught up in it that when I left the office to go to lunch, I’d look around and have irrational thoughts about whether everyone had been reading the tweets and thought I was an idiot.
But then when I went out with friends or talked with my family, I realized that real people don’t use Twitter. It’s largely a platform for journalists and the most passionate (read: angry) political operatives. My friends and family never saw the attacks on us, nor would they care if they did.
So when the talk on Twitter turned nasty (which was often), I would remind our staff: Twitter is not real life.
People hate referees
My initial sketch of the website was called “The Campaign Referee” because I thought it was a good metaphor for our work: We were calling the fouls in a rough and tumble sport. But Times editors vetoed that name… and I soon saw why.
People hate referees! On many days, it seemed PolitiFact made everyone mad!
That phenomenon became clearer in 2013 when I stepped down as editor and came to Duke as a journalism professor. I became a Duke basketball fan and quickly noticed the shoddy work of the referees in the Atlantic Coast Conference. THEY ARE SO UNFAIR! Their calls always favor the University of North Carolina! What’s the deal? Did all the refs attend UNC.
Seek inspiration in unlikely places
When we expanded PolitiFact to the states (PolitiFact Wisconsin, PolitiFact Florida, etc.), our model was similar to fast-food franchises. We licensed our brand to local newspapers and TV and radio stations and let them do their own fact-checks using our Truth-O-Meter.
That was risky. We were allowing other news organizations to use our name and methods. If they did shoddy work, it would damage our brand. But how could we protect ourselves?
I got inspiration from McDonald’s and Subway. I assigned one of our interns to write a report about how those companies ensured quality as they franchised. The answers: training sessions, manuals that clearly described how to consistently make the Big Macs and sandwiches, and quality control inspectors.
We followed each recommendation. I conducted detailed training sessions for the new fact-checkers in each town and then checked the quality by taking part in the editing and ratings for several weeks.
I gave every fact-checker “The Truth-O-Meter Owner’s Manual,” a detailed guide to our journalism that reflected our lighthearted spirit (It began: “Congratulations on your purchase of a Truth-O-Meter! If operated and maintained properly, your Truth-O-Meter will give you years of enjoyment! But be careful because incorrect operation can cause an unsafe situation.”)
Adjust to complaints and dump the duds
We made adjustments. We had envisioned Pants on Fire as a joke rating (the first one was on a Joe Biden claim that President Bush was brain-dead), but readers liked the rating so much that we decided to use it on all claims that were ridiculously false. (There were a lot!)
In the meantime, though, we lost enthusiasm for the animated GIF for Pants on Fire. The burning Truth-O-Meter was amusing the first few times you saw it, but then … it was too much. Pants on Fire is now a static image.
As good as our design was, one section on the home page called the Attack File was too confusing. It showed the person making the attack as well as the individual being attacked. But readers didn’t grasp what we were doing. We 86’d the Attack File.
Initially, the rating between Half True and False was called Barely True, but many people didn’t understand it – and the National Republican Congressional Committee once distorted it. When the NRCC earned a Barely True, the group boasted in a news release, “POLITIFACT OHIO SAYS TRUE.”
Um, no. We changed the rating to Mostly False. We also rated the NRCC’s news release. This time: Pants on Fire!