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.
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.