Public radio listeners want more fact-checking in election coverage

Survey shows strong interest, but local public media stations are slow to check candidate claims

By Mark Stencel – March 22, 2016 | Print this article

What do politically minded news junkies want from their election coverage? If they’re anything like NPR’s audience, they want fact-checking.

Last November, when the public radio company asked a sample of its audience about their interest in different kinds of political stories, 96 percent said they wanted stories that verified what the candidates said. Seventy-seven percent said they were very interested in fact-checks and 19 percent said they were somewhat interested.

"Sesame Street News"
Kermit covers breaking news about Humpty Dumpty in a report for “Sesame Street News.” But a survey suggests public media audiences would rather have fact-checking. (Screen shot via sesamestreet.org)

But the survey has yet to translate into much on-air fact-checking, especially at the state and local level, where public media stations are hardly playing a leading role in the growing trend of checking politicians’ statements.

The Reporters’ Lab international database of fact-checkers currently counts more than 40 active projects in the United States. Of those, 14 are affiliated with radio or TV news companies. But only two are public broadcasters — PolitiFact California, which is run by Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, and NPR, which launched a new fact-checking feature called “Break It Down” last fall. A third, Minnesota Public Radio’s PoliGraph, has been inactive since June. Beyond public radio and public television, other non-profit media fact-checkers at the local level include Michigan Truth Squad from the Center for Michigan’s Bridge magazine and the digital news site Voice of San Diego.

The low public media numbers are surprising since NPR’s audience research found that few other political news stories resonated as much with its listeners as fact-checks do. Only actual election results did better in the survey, with 97 percent saying they cared about those stories, while 95 percent said they were most interested in reports comparing candidates’ positions.

By contrast, less than half of those who answered had much interest in the latest polls or fundraising reports — two staples of most political reporting diets.

The PowerPoint slide below breaks down the survey answers in more detail. The 362 people who answered were selected from a much larger pool of loyal NPR listeners — people from the network’s radio and digital audience who volunteer to provide feedback. My former colleagues at NPR, where I previously was managing editor for digital news, kindly shared the audience feedback with the Reporters’ Lab, which tracks the growth and impact of fact-checking.

NPR election news survey
Answers from a November 2015 survey asking an NPR audience panel about election coverage. (Courtesy of NPR)

The fact-checking numbers explain why NPR expanded its occasional fact-checking efforts for the 2016 election cycle. The numbers also reinforce the answers NPR heard four years ago, when it asked its audience a similar question and got a strikingly similar answer.

Yet even with such consistent interest, public broadcasters have taken a back seat to other media outlets in trying to verify political claims — a topic I discussed in an interview on a recent episode of The Pub, a weekly podcast about the public media business.

In truth, fact-checking is a tough beat for typical public media stations, especially those with limited reporting and editing staffs. The reporting process is time-consuming and intensive. And the results are likely to anger the most partisan elements of the audience. That’s no easy thing when you depend on listener and viewer donations and, in some communities, taxpayer support.

But there are upsides for local stations, too, including the ability to concentrate limited journalism resources on stories the audience says it eagerly wants. Fact-checks can also distinguish public broadcasters’ election in competitive media markets — unless the competition distinguishes itself first.

For now, commercial TV news outlets seem to be beating public broadcasters to those benefits. Nine of the active state and local fact-checking operations in the United States are affiliated with commercial TV stations. That includes four new PolitiFact state affiliates (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio) that launched or relaunched in recent months as part of a partnership between the national fact-checker and the Scripps TV Station Group.

Commercial TV faces some of the same practical challenges that keep many public media outlets from taking on the truth beat. If anything, given the dependence on political advertising dollars at most commercial TV stations, you might even think those outlets would have far more to lose than public broadcasters. But the public broadcasters seem to be the ones who are losing out.

(As is only appropriate for an article about fact-checking, this post was updated shortly after it was published to correct two numbers: In NPR’s survey 77 percent said they were very interested in fact-checks and 19 percent said they were somewhat interested. Corrections always welcome here!)

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CNN fact-checking

Fact-checkers spin-up for presidential debates

With facts and falsehoods flying, political watchdogs are rolling out and reviving election-year features.

By Shaker Samman – September 22, 2015 | Print this article

Fact-checking season is underway, and some new players are getting into the act.

FiveThirtyEight, NPR, Vox and Politico unveiled new fact-checking features for the presidential debates that began last month. Others revived their truth-seeking teams, joining usual suspects such as FactCheck.org, the Washington Post and PolitiFact in their perennial efforts to verify what politicians are saying.

The fact-checkers often focus on the same claims, but coverage from last week’s Republican debates in California showed the varying ways they use to explain their findings. In its coverage, CNN rated statements on a scale similar to PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter, while the New York Times and NPR chose to work without a grading system similar to the FactCheck.org model.

CNN fact-checking
CNN said its Fact-Checking Team “picked the juiciest statements, analyzed them, consulted issue experts and then rated them.”

As in last month’s first debates, hosted by Fox News, the Post set aside its four-Pinocchio scale, offering a single scrolling summary of multiple fact-checks before following up additional posts in its usual style. Politico’s Wrongometer, CNN and NPR used similar models. Others posted individual items about specific claims or packaged a number of individually linkable fact-checks together as a combined reading experience. There also were efforts to do some real-time fact-checking while the debates were underway.

Here’s a roundup from last week’s two-round Republican debate, which included a primetime showdown with 11 candidates and an earlier session with four others:

CNN: The debate host’s “Fact-Checking Team” checked 16 claims and awarded them rulings from “True” to “It’s Complicated” to “False.” The “It’s Complicated” rating was awarded to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said Saudi Arabia was not accepting any Syrian refugees, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for statements he made regarding the Iran nuclear agreement.

NPR: The radio network fact-checked four claims as part of its new “Break it Down” segment — all involving statements by or in response to Donald Trump. The claims ranged from the real estate developer’s lobbying for casinos in Florida to the safety of vaccination. NPR didn’t rate the claims on a scale and instead explained the validity of comments.

New York Times: The Times examined 11 claims, including topics from Planned Parenthood to immigration policy. Like NPR, the Times did not use a rating system. They did, however, post their fact-checks during the debate as part of their live coverage. Many of their checks focused on Trump and Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon whose outsider status had helped him climb up in the polls after the August debate on Fox News.

Politico: The Agenda, Politico’s policy channel, applied its Wrongometer to 12 claims, focusing on topics such as Trump’s bankruptcy and President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. The group also scrutinized former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s remarks about Syria and a much-repeated Columbine myth. Despite its Wrongometer header, Politico’s fact-checkers do not use a rating system.

Vox: Rather than the relatively short, just-the-facts summations most other fact-checkers posted, Vox penned full-length commentaries on a handful of claims. Two featured statements by Fiorina (one about Planned Parenthood, linked here, and another on her time at HP), and one checked the candidates’ views on vaccinations. No rating was used.

AP: The news service fact-checked five claims, including statements from Fiorina on Planned Parenthood and the effects of Trump’s plan for an economic “uncoupling” from China. The AP did not use a system to rate these claims.

FiveThirtyEight: The site did its fact-checking in its debate live blog. FiveThirtyEight’s staff did not use any sort of rating system in its real-time reviews of the candidates’ statements, such as Trump’s claim about Fiorina’s track record as CEO of HP and President Obama’s likability overseas.

FactCheck.org: The fact-checkers based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center reviewed 14 claims from the debates. FactCheck.org did not rate the claims, which included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s statements about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal to Trump’s comments on Wisconsin’s budget under Gov. Scott Walker.

PolitiFact: Run by the Tampa Bay Times, Washington-based PolitiFact fact-checked 15 debate claims so far, and awarded them rulings from “Pants on Fire” to “True.” The “Pants on Fire” rating went to Carson, who said that many pediatricians recognize the potential harm from too many vaccines. They also awarded a “True” rating to Fiorina’s statement regarding the potency of marijuana. While the debate was underway, the PolitiFact staff tapped their archive of previous calls to live blog the event.

The Washington Post Fact Checker: The Post’s two-person fact-checking team reviewed 18 claims in a roundup that included Trump’s denial that he’d ever gone bankrupt and New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie’s story about being named U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001. The fact-checkers also posted versions of those items in the Post’s debate-night live blog. Following its usual practice for debates, the Post did not use its Pinocchio system to rate these claims. But since the debate, the Post added more Pinocchio-based fact-checks, including items on Fiorina’s criticisms of veterans’ health care (two Pinocchios) and Rubio’s comments on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities (one Pinocchio). Notably both of those items were suggested by Post readers.

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