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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Poligraph: Building a fact-checking brand in Minnesota

Veteran fact-checker Catharine Richert launched the site in 2010 and built it into a popular feature for Minnesota Public Radio.

By Claire Ballentine – March 25, 2015 | Print this article

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.

Catharine Richert

“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.”

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