“PolitiFact”

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.

The PolitiFact home page from August 2007 had a simple design. Source: Wayback Machine – Internet Archive

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! 

Bill Adair’s original sketch of “The Campaign Referee”

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!

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Ecuador Verifica

Fact-checking census shows slower growth

The number of new projects dipped, even as fact-checking reached more countries than ever

By Mark Stencel & Joel Luther – June 2, 2021 | Print this article

Fact-checkers are now found in at least 102 countries – more than half the nations in the world. 

The latest census by the Duke Reporters’ Lab identified 341 active fact-checking projects, up 51 from last June’s report.

But after years of steady and sometimes rapid growth, there are signs that trend is slowing, even though misleading content and political lies have played a growing role in contentious elections and the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Our tally revealed a slowdown in the number of new fact-checkers, especially when we looked at the upward trajectory of projects since the Lab began its yearly survey and global fact-checking map seven years ago. 

The number of fact-checking projects that launched since the most recent Reporters’ Lab census was more than three times fewer than the number that started in the 12 months before that, based on our adjusted tally. 

From July 2019 to June 2020, there were 61 new fact-checkers. In the year since then, there were 19.

Meanwhile, 21 fact-checkers shut down in that same two-year period beginning in June 2019. And 54 additions to the Duke database in that same period were fact-checkers that were already up and running prior to the 2019 census.

Looking at the count by calendar year also underscored the slowdown in the time of COVID. 

The Reporters’ Lab counted 36 fact-checking projects that launched in 2020. That was below the annual average of 53 for the preceding six calendar years – and less than half the number of startups that began fact-checking in 2019. The 2020 launches were also the lowest number of new fact-checkers we’ve counted since 2014. 

New Fact Checkers by Year

New Fact Checkers by Year
Duke Reporters’ Lab

(Note: The adjusted number of 2020 launches may increase slightly over time as the Reporters’ Lab identifies other fact-checkers we have not yet discovered.)

The slowdown comes after a period of rapid expansion that began in 2016. That was the year when the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the presidential race in the United States raised public alarm about the impact of misinformation.

In response, major tech companies such as Facebook and Google elevated fact-checks on their platforms and provided grants, direct funding and other incentives for new and existing fact-checking organizations. (Disclosure: Google and Facebook fund some of the Duke lab’s research on technologies for fact-checkers. )

The 2018-2020 numbers presented below are adjusted from earlier census reports to include fact-checkers that were subsequently added to our database. 

Active Fact-Checkers by Year

2021 Fact-Checking Census
Duke Reporters’ Lab

Note: 2021 YTD includes one fact-checker that closed in 2021. 

Growth has been steady on almost every continent except in North America. In the United States, where fact-checking first took off in the early 2010s, there are 61 active fact-checkers now. That’s down slightly from the 2020 election year, when there were 66. But the U.S. is still home to more fact-checking projects than any other country. Of the current U.S. fact-checkers, more than half (35 of 61) focus on state and local politics. 

Fact-Checkers by Continent

Fact-Checkers by Continent
Duke Reporters’ Lab

Among other details we found in this year’s census:

  • More countries, more staying power: Based on our adjusted count, fact-checkers were active in at least 47 countries in 2014. That more than doubled to 102 now. And most of the fact-checkers that started in 2014 or earlier (71 out of 122) are still active today.

 

  • Fact-checking is more multilingual: The active fact-checkers produce reports in nearly 70 languages, from Albanian to Urdu. English is the most common, used on 146 different sites, followed by Spanish (53), French (33), Arabic (14), Portuguese (12), Korean (11) and German (10). Fact-checkers in multilingual countries often present their work in more than one language – either in translation on the same site, or on different sites tailored for specific language communities, including original reporting for those audiences.

 

  • More than media: Half of the current fact-checkers (195 of 341) are affiliated with media organizations, including national news publishers and broadcasters, local news sources and digital-only outlets. But there are other models, too. At least 37 are affiliated with non-profit groups, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations and 26 are affiliated academic institutions. Some of the fact-checkers involve cross-organization partnerships and have multiple affiliations. But to be listed in our database, the fact-checking must be organized and produced in a journalistic fashion.

 

  • Turnover: In addition to the 341 current fact-checkers, the Reporters’ Lab database and map also include 112 inactive projects. From 2014 to 2020, an average of 15 fact-checking projects a year close down. Limited funding and expiring grants are among  the most common reasons fact-checkers shuttered their sites. But there also are short-run, election year projects and partnerships that intentionally close down once the voting is over. Of all the inactive projects, 38 produced fact-checks for a year or less. The average lifespan of an inactive fact-checker is two years and three months. The active fact-checkers have been in business twice as long – an average of more than four and a half years.

The Reporters’ Lab process for selecting fact-checkers for its database is similar to the standards used by the International Fact Checking Network – a project based at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. IFCN currently involves 109 organizations that each agree to a code of principles. The Lab’s database includes all the IFCN signatories, but it also counts any related outlets – such as the state-level news partners of PolitiFact in the United States, the wide network of multilingual fact-checking sites that France’s AFP has built across its global bureau system, and the fact-checking teams Africa Check and PesaCheck have mobilized in countries across Africa. 

Reporters’ Lab project manager Erica Ryan and student researchers Amelia Goldstein and Leah Boyd contributed to this year’s report.

About the census: Here’s how we decide which fact-checkers to include in the Reporters’ Lab database. The Lab continually collects new information about the fact-checkers it identifies, such as when they launched and how long they last. That’s why the updated numbers for earlier years in this report are higher than the counts the Lab included in earlier reports. If you have questions, updates or additions, please contact Mark Stencel or Joel Luther.

Ecuador Verifica
Image at top: The fact-checking collaborative Ecuador Verifica (ecuadorverifica.org) launched in January with a traffic-light metaphor to rate claims. The site was one of the 19 new fact-checking projects the Reporters’ Lab added to its database in the past year.

Related Links: Previous fact-checking census reports

April 2014

January 2015

February 2016

February 2017

February 2018

June 2019

June 2020

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Fact-checking Database

U.S. fact-checkers gear up for 2020 campaign

Of the 226 fact-checking projects in the latest Reporters’ Lab global count, 50 are in the U.S. -- and most are locally focused.

By Mark Stencel & Joel Luther – November 25, 2019 | Print this article

With the U.S. election now less than a year away, at least four-dozen American fact-checking projects plan to keep tabs on claims by candidates and their supporters – and a majority of those fact-checkers won’t be focused on the presidential campaign.

The 50 active U.S. fact-checking projects are included in the latest Reporters’ Lab tally of global fact-checking, which now shows 226 sites in 73 countries. More details about the global growth below.

Of the 50 U.S. projects, about a third (16) are nationally focused. That includes independent fact-checkers such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and Snopes, as well as major news media efforts, including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times. There also are a handful of fact-checkers that are less politically focused. They concentrate on global misinformation or specific topic areas, from science to gossip.

At least 31 others are state and locally minded fact-checkers spread across 20 states. Of that 31, 11 are PolitiFact’s state-level media partners. A new addition to that group is WRAL-TV in North Carolina — a commercial TV station that took over the PolitiFact franchise in its state from The News & Observer, a McClatchy-owned newspaper based in Raleigh. Beyond North Carolina, PolitiFact has active local affiliates in California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The News & Observer has not abandoned fact-checking. It launched a new statewide initiative of its own — this time without PolitiFact’s trademarked Truth-O-Meter or a similar rating system for the statements it checks. “We’ll provide a highly informed assessment about the relative truth of the claims, rather than a static rating or ranking,” The N&O’s editors said in an article announcing its new project.

Among the 20 U.S. state and local fact-checkers that are not PolitiFact partners, at least 13 use some kind of rating system.

Of all the state and local fact-checkers, 11 are affiliated with TV stations — like WRAL, which had its own fact-checking service before it joined forces with PolitiFact this month. Another 11 are affiliated with newspapers or magazines. Five are local digital media startups and two are public radio stations. There are also a handful of projects based in academic journalism programs. 

One example of a local digital startup is Mississippi Today, a non-profit state news service that launched a fact-checking page for last year’s election. It is among the projects we have added to our database over the past month.

We should note that some of these fact-checkers hibernate between election cycles. These seasonal fact-checkers that have long track records over multiple election cycles remain active in our database. Some have done this kind of reporting for years. For instance, WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, has been fact-checking since 2004 — three years before PolitiFact, The Washington Post and AP got into the business.

One of the hardest fact-checking efforts for us to quantify is run by corporate media giant TEGNA Inc. which operates nearly 50 stations across the country. Its “Verify” segments began as a pilot project at WFAA-TV in the Dallas area in 2016. Now each station produces its own versions for its local TV and online audience. The topics are usually suggested by viewers, with local reporters often fact-checking political statements or debunking local hoaxes and rumors. 

A reporter at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, also produces national segments that are distributed for use by any of the company’s other stations. We’ve added TEGNA’s “Verify” to our database as a single entry, but we may also add individual stations as we determine which ones do the kind of fact-checking we are trying to count. (Here’s how we decide which fact-checkers to include.)

A Global Movement

As for the global picture, the Reporters’ Lab is now up to 226 active fact-checking projects around the world — up from 210 in October, when our count went over 200 for the first time. That is more than five times the number we first counted in 2014. It’s also more than double a retroactive count for that same year –- a number that was based on the actual start dates of all the fact-checking projects we’ve added to the database over the past five years (see footnote to our most recent annual census for details).

The growth of Agence France-Presse’s work as part of Facebook’s third-party-fact checking partnership is a big factor. After adding a slew of AFP bureaus with dedicated fact-checkers to our database last month, we added many more — including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Lebanon, Singapore, Spain, Thailand and Uruguay. We now count 22 individual AFP bureaus, all started since 2018.

Other recent additions to the database involved several established fact-checkers, including PesaCheck, which launched in Kenya in 2016. Since then it’s added bureaus in Tanzania in 2017 and Uganda in 2018 — both of which are now in our database. We added Da Begad, a volunteer effort based in Egypt that has focused on social media hoaxes and misinformation since 2013. And there’s a relative newcomer too: Re:Check, a Latvian project that’s affiliated with a non-profit investigative center called Re:Baltica. It launched over the summer. 

Peru’s OjoBiónico is back on our active list. It resumed fact-checking last year after a two-year hiatus. OjoBiónico is a section of OjoPúblico, a digital news service that focuses on an investigative reporting service.

We already have other fact-checkers we plan to add to our database over the coming weeks. If there’s a fact-checker you know about that we need to update or add to our map, please contact Joel Luther at the Reporters’ Lab.

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A broken promise about a tattoo and the need to fact-check everyone

"When we put together the IFCN code of principles three years ago, we said that fact-checkers 'do not concentrate their fact-checking on any one side.'"

By Bill Adair – June 19, 2019 | Print this article

My opening remarks from Global Fact 6, Cape Town, South Africa, on June 19, 2019.

It’s wonderful to be here and see so many familiar faces. It’s particularly cool to see our new team from the IFCN, not just Baybars and Cris, but also Daniela Flamini, one of our journalism students from Duke who graduated last month and is now working for the IFCN.

And it warms my heart to see my old friend Stephen Buckley here. When Stephen was dean of the faculty at Poynter, the two of us organized the first Global Fact meeting in London in 2014. That wasn’t easy. We had difficulty raising enough money. But Stephen was determined to make it happen, so he found some money from a few different accounts at Poynter.  Global Fact – and our important journalistic movement – would not have happened if it weren’t for him.

I’m impressed by this turnout – more than 250 attendees this year! I confess that when I saw the headline on Daniela’s story last week that said this was “the largest fact-checking event in history”… I wanted a fact-check. But I did one, and as PolitiFact would say, I rate that statement True!

I want to start today with a quick reminder of the importance of holding people accountable for what they say — in this case…me.

You will recall that last year at Global Fact, I promised that I would get a tattoo. And after some discussion, I decided it would be a tattoo of my beloved Truth-O-Meter. But a year went by and a funny thing happened: I decided I didn’t want a tattoo.

Now, as fact-checkers, we all know the importance of holding people accountable for what they say. We did that at PolitiFact with the Obameter and other campaign promise meters. PolitiFact has a special meter for a broken promise that usually features the politician with a big frown. We have fun choosing that photo, which has the person looking really miserable.

So I’ve created one to rate myself on the tattoo promise: The Bill-O-Meter. Promise broken!

My message today to open Global Fact is also about accountability. It’s about the need to make sure we fact-check all players in our political discourse.

Julianna Rennie and I recently wrote a piece for Poynter that looked at a new trend in the United States we call “embedded fact-checking.” It’s the growing practice of reporters including fact-checks in their news articles, when they drop in a paragraph or two that exposes a falsehood. For example, they may write that someone “falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism.”

We were glad to find a growing trend of embedded fact-checking in news and analysis articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the AP over the past four years. But we also found the subject was nearly always the same: Donald Trump. It was wonderful to see the trend, but it was lopsided.

Trump is a prime target for fact-checking because his volume of falsehoods is unprecedented in American history — and probably in world history, too. Journalists rightly should question everything he says. And you may have similar figures in your own countries who deserve similar scrutiny.

But we shouldn’t focus so much on Trump that we neglect other politicians and other parties. That’s true not just in the United States but everywhere. Indeed, when we put together the IFCN code of principles three years ago, we said that fact-checkers “do not concentrate their fact-checking on any one side.”

In the United States and around the world, we need to make sure that we check all the important players in the political discourse, whether it is for news stories or our fact-checking sites.

So my message for you today is a simple one: check everybody. Hold everyone accountable.

Even me.

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Reporters’ Lab students are fact-checking North Carolina politicians

Student journalists and computer scientists find claims and report articles for the N.C. Fact-Checking Project

By Catherine Clabby – November 20, 2018 | Print this article

Duke Reporters’ Lab students expanded vital political journalism during a historic midterm campaign season this fall with the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project.

Five student journalists reviewed thousands of statements that hundreds of North Carolina candidates vying for state and federal offices made online and during public appearances. They collected newsy and checkable claims from what amounted to a firehose of political claims presented as fact.

Duke computer science undergraduates with the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative applied custom-made bots and the ClaimBuster algorithm to scrape and sort checkable political claims from hundreds of political Twitter feeds.

Editors and reporters then selected claims the students had logged for most of the project’s 30 plus  fact-checks and six summary articles that the News and Observer and PolitiFact North Carolina published between August and November.

Duke senior Bill McCarthy

Duke senior Bill McCarthy was part of the four-reporter team on the project, which the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund supported to expand local fact-checking during the 2018 midterms and beyond in a large, politically divided and politically active state.

“Publishing content in any which way is exciting when you know it has some value to voters, to democracy,” said McCarthy, who interned at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C. last summer. “It was especially exciting to get so many fact-checks published in so little time.”

Reporters found politicians and political groups often did not stick with the facts during a campaign election season that that fielded an unusually large number of candidates statewide and a surge in voter turnout.

The N.C. Fact-Checking Project produces nonpartisan journalism

NC GOP falsely ties dozens of Democrats to single-payer health care plan,” read one project fact-check headline. “Democrat falsely links newly-appointed Republican to health care bill,” noted another.  The fact-check “Ad misleads about NC governors opposing constitutional amendments” set the record straight about some Democratic-leaning claims about six proposed amendments to the state constitution.

And on and on.

Digging for the Truth

Work in the lab was painstaking. Five sophomores filled weekday shifts to scour hundreds of campaign websites, social media feeds, Facebook and Google political ads, televised debates, campaign mailers and whatever else they could put their eyes on. Often they recorded one politician’s attacks on an opponent that might, or might not, be true.

Students scanned political chatter from all over the state, tracking competitive state and congressional races most closely. The resulting journalism was news that people could use as they were assessing candidates for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress as well as six proposed amendments to the state constitution.

The Reporters’ Lab launched a mini news service to share each fact-checking article with hundreds of newsrooms across the state for free.

One of more than 30 N.C. Fact-Checking Project articles

The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper like the N&O, published several checks. So did smaller publications such as Asheville’s Citizen-Times  and the Greensboro News and Record. Newsweek cited  a fact-check report by the N&O’s Rashaan Ayesh and Andy Specht about a fake photo of Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, shared by the chairman of the Cabarrus County GOP, which WRAL referenced in a roundup.

Project fact-checks influenced political discourse directly too. Candidates referred to project fact-checks in campaign messaging on social media and even in campaign ads. Democrat Dan McCready, who lost a close race against Republican Mark Marris in District 9, used project fact-checks in two campaign ads promoted on Facebook and in multiple posts on his Facebook campaign page, for instance.

While N&O reporter Andy Specht was reporting a deceptive ad from the Stop Deceptive Amendments political committee, the group announced plans to change it.

The fact-checking project will restart in January, when North Carolina’s reconfigured General Assembly opens its first 2019 session.

 

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“We need to disrupt the lies”

At the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Awards, a call for a more aggressive approach to fact-checking

By Bill Adair – November 16, 2018 | Print this article

My remarks for the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Awards, Bogota, Colombia, Nov. 15, 2018.

This is a critical moment for journalism around the world, when the path ahead seems uncertain. We lived through the dawn of the Information Age and saw the great promise of the internet; but it now seems like we are in a darker time.

When I started PolitiFact in 2007, I was filled with hope about what the digital revolution would bring. There was a belief the internet could make information more widely available, bring people together and help us hold power accountable. Like many of you, I am wondering if those hopes were misplaced. But we can’t get despondent about how things have turned out. We need to reimagine our roles as journalists and harness the power of technology to combat misinformation.

A little history: I started PolitiFact out of my own guilt. I had been covering the White House and Congress for the St. Petersburg Times, a Florida newspaper that is now called the Tampa Bay Times. I had grown tired of hearing politicians’ false claims and felt I had been complicit by publishing them in my news articles without scrutiny. The internet offered a new way for us to hold politicians accountable for what they said. I went to my editors with a crazy idea: instead of having me cover the 2008 campaign like all the other political journalists, how about if I started a fact-checking website?

Sure, they said.

In fact, they liked the crazy idea so much, they let me start a team with some of the most talented reporters and editors at the paper. They also let us break the rules. We built our own content management system and took some bold steps that most newspaper editors would never allow. We invented the Truth-O-Meter, which rated politicians’ claims from True to “Pants on Fire.” It made substantive articles about policy accessible to a wider audience.

We created a unique form of journalism. Instead of publishing traditional articles, we published fact-checks of politicians’ statements in a new structured form that could be collected on report card pages and tallied to tell people how many true, half true or Pants on Fire statements a politician had earned. PolitiFact was truly new journalism in the internet age.

A key to PolitiFact’s success was the culture of my newspaper. My editors were not only willing to let me try my unusual idea, they encouraged that kind of creative approach in everything we did. They also had a deep commitment to accountability reporting. They believed – they still believe – that holding power accountable is one of the fundamental missions of journalism.

PolitiFact became part of a growing community that included FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact-Checker in the United States, Full Fact in Britain and Chequeado in Argentina.

The digital revolution made it all possible. I remember those early years as an exciting time filled with promise. It was the honeymoon for journalism on the internet, as reporters and editors around the world discovered we could use the web to do powerful, important things.

News stories became interactive, enabling readers to engage with content. Data could be presented as vivid graphics that made numbers come alive. And design was transformed: I remember when we first saw Snowfall, the New York Times story about an avalanche, and we saw how the web could be used for powerful storytelling.

Then came smartphones, which enabled our readers and viewers to get the news all the time, wherever they were, and use thousands of apps to read articles and watch videos.  It seemed like the future was infinitely bright and there were lots more great things ahead.

But the honeymoon ended.

The internet got loud and crowded. Partisan voices began to dominate the discussions and people began shouting at each other in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Twitter became a thing, but we realized that some of the “people” on Twitter weren’t really human — they were bots. And they were programmed to pump up the partisan propaganda to drive apart the real people.

Partisans took advantage of the internet to build digital fortresses where they could isolate themselves from opinions they disliked. They hid behind the walls and lobbed attacks against their enemies. These fortresses are home to more propaganda than discourse and they provide refuge for extremists. If you’re inside one, your side is always right.

The iPhone had changed the landscape when it was introduced in 2007. It created a whole a new platform for apps, which offered promising new ways that people could connect. I remember when a friend in Chile showed me WhatsApp and how he used it to communicate with his friends and family.

But it didn’t take long for people who want to spread misinformation to discover they could use WhatsApp without getting much scrutiny from journalists. I know that here in Colombia, you saw lots of misinformation spread through WhatsApp about the peace deal in the 2016 election.

Pablo Medina Uribe, the editor of the fact-checking site Colombia Check, reminded me recently how WhatsApp is a fertile ground for falsehoods. People are more likely to believe WhatsApp messages because they’re sent by people they trust. But the nature of many mobile data plans here give people unlimited data on WhatsApp and Facebook but not for their internet browser or other apps.

So, on a broad scale, what can we do? More specifically, what can journalists and the tech community do?

We need to find new ways to harness technology to get accurate information to people when they need it. We need to be as aggressive and cunning as the people and groups who are spreading the misinformation. And we need to change our thinking.

First, the technology part. At Duke University, we’ve launched a project called the Tech & Check Cooperative that has an ambitious goal: to use automation to monitor politicians’ speeches and debates and provide live fact-checking sourced from existing fact-checks.

Five or six years ago, I thought this kind of automated fact-checking was a long time away. But advances in technology and the dividends from a partnership we started with Google have created remarkable momentum. So we have already created the first fact-checking app for the Amazon Echo called Share the Facts. It lets you query Alexa and get an instant fact-check.

It’s impressive: you can ask Alexa a question and, if the fact-checkers have published something on it, she will reply telling you that the Washington Post or FactCheck.org or PolitiFact checked it and what they concluded.

We are now building a similar product for TV and the web. It’s a much harder product to develop than the Amazon Echo, but the idea is that when our app hears someone say a statement that fact-checkers have examined, the app will pop up a related fact-check right on the screen of your smartphone or TV.

We’ve made significant progress in the last six months. Over the summer, our students created a rough framework for our app that converts a live speech to text, then filters out sentences that aren’t checkable using our ClaimBuster tool, and then uses an algorithm to look for matches from our database of previously published articles. We are still some months away from a finished product, but we are getting closer every day.

We also just completed the first user testing of instant fact-checking on TV. We had people watch specially modified videos of State of the Union speeches that had pop-up fact-checks. The viewers had helpful feedback for us about what they wanted on the screen, and they were unanimous about the concept: They all want real-time fact-checking on their TV.

And you don’t need an army of computer science students to create something valuable.  We need more projects like the “lie detector” developed by La Silla Vacia here in Colombia, which pioneered fact-checking on WhatsApp. People send a screenshot of a message they would like checked and then the journalists check it and encourage people to share it back through WhatsApp.

But regardless of whether we’re building big projects for a television screen, or smaller ones for WhatsApp, it requires that we think differently about the role of a journalist.

Most political reporters – and nearly all fact-checkers – have traditionally thought of themselves as neutral players in the political discourse. We published the information in the daily paper and left it on your doorstep. Or we just put it on our website or on the nightly news.

We were passive. We left it up to you to seek out the information that you needed and draw any connections or conclusions about the information on your own. I’ve been asked many times if it bothered me that politicians kept lying after we fact-checked them, and I would say, “Our job is just to provide the information.”

That strategy worked fine 10 years ago. But now, politicians and propagandists have learned how to spread misinformation at light speed. We can no longer sit back and wait for readers to come to us. We must become more aggressive and take the facts to the people. We need to disrupt the lies.

We can no longer be passive when our readers and viewers are being swamped with misinformation. We need to be more energetic and inventive in getting the information to people at the moment they first hear the claim.

Some of these solutions will be high-tech, like the automated fact-checking apps we’re building at Duke. Others can take more of a grass-roots approach, like the WhatsApp “lie detector” developed by La Silla Vacia.

But we need all kinds of these efforts, big and small, simple and complex, to adapt how we provide information in these fast-changing times. We need to build new apps for your phone and create new ways to provide the facts while you’re watching a speech on TV. And while print is still around, we should put the truth in ink and paper.

Yes, the honeymoon for the internet is over and sometimes it seems like we’re in a dark time. But I’m encouraged by the progress we’re making. I see promising efforts all around the world. And through it all I see great spirit and creativity.

The mission of the journalist remains the same: to give people the vital information they need to make sense of their world and hold their government accountable. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll just do it in new and creative ways.

 

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Reporters’ Lab joins N&O, UNC Reese News Lab on major fact-checking project

With grant from the N.C. Local News Lab Fund, partnership will expand non-partisan fact-checking throughout the state

By Catherine Clabby – August 1, 2018 | Print this article

The Duke Reporters’ Lab is joining McClatchy Carolinas and the UNC Reese News Lab in an ambitious project to expand non-partisan fact-checking throughout North Carolina.

With a $50,000 grant from the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project will build on the existing work at The News & Observer, add the work of student journalists and take advantage of new automated tools from the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative.

The project will evaluate statements by state and federal candidates in the 2018 election as well as lawmakers in the General Assembly session that begins in January 2019. The fact-checks will be produced by N&O journalists as part of PolitiFact North Carolina and will be made available for free to any news organization in the state for use online and in print.

The project will get support from the new TruthBuzz program of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which is hiring an engagement fellow based on Raleigh to promote the North Carolina fact-checking.

The North Carolina Fact-Checking Project will put special emphasis on claims by politicians in rural parts of the state. Students in the Reporters’ Lab will scour news coverage and campaign ads for factual claims made by state, local and congressional candidates. The Lab will build new versions of its Tech & Check Alerts that use automated bots to find statements by politicians in social media that could be of interest to the North Carolina fact-checkers.

The Duke students and bots will provide daily suggestions of possible claims to The News & Observer, which will select which statements to research.

The UNC Reese News Lab will co-host a student seminar on fact-checking and help select a student journalist to work on the project. Representatives from Duke, TruthBuzz and the News & Observer will hold outreach sessions around the state to promote fact-checking and encourage news organizations to publish the project’s work.

About the partners:

The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund is a collaborative fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation established by a group of local and national funders who believe in the power of local journalism, local stories, and local people to strengthen our democracy.

The Duke Reporters’ Lab at the Sanford School of Public Policy is a center of research on fact-checking and automated journalism. The Lab tracks the growth of fact-checking around the world, conducts studies on important topics and develops tools to help journalists.

McClatchy Carolinas is the McClatchy division that publishes three newspapers in North Carolina, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. The N&O has a strong team of political reporters and has been the state’s PolitiFact partner for the last two years.

The Reese News Lab is an experimental media and research project based at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

 

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At Global Fact V: A celebration of community

More than 200 people attended the fifth meeting of the world's fact-checkers in Rome, which was organized by the International Fact-Checking Network.

By Bill Adair – June 25, 2018 | Print this article

My opening remarks at Global Fact V, the fifth annual meeting of the world’s fact-checkers, organized by the International Fact-Checking Network, held June 20-22 in Rome.

A couple of weeks ago, a photo from our first Global Fact showed up in my Facebook feed. Many of you will remember it: we had been all crammed into a classroom at the London School of Economics. When we went outside for a group photo, there were about 50 of us.

To show how our conference has grown, I posted that photo on Twitter along with one from our 2016 conference that had almost twice as many people. I also posted a third photo that showed thousands of people gathered in front of the Vatican. I said that was our projected crowd for this conference.

I rate that photo Mostly True.

What all of our conferences have in common is that they are really about community. It all began in that tiny classroom at the London School of Economics when we realized that whether we were from Italy or the U.K. or Egypt, we were all in this together. We discovered that even though we hadn’t talked much before or in many cases even met, we were facing the same challenges — fundraising and finding an audience and overcoming partisanship.

It was also a really powerful experience because we got a sense of how some fact-checkers around the world were struggling under difficult circumstances — under governments that provide little transparency, or, much worse, governments that oppress journalists and are hostile toward fact-checkers.

Throughout that first London conference there was an incredible sense of community. We’d never met before, but in just a couple of days we formed strong bonds. We vowed to keep in touch and keep talking and help each other.

It was an incredibly powerful experience for me. I was at a point in my career where I was trying to sort out what I would do in my new position in academia. I came back inspired and decided to start an association of fact-checkers – and hold these meetings every year.

The next year we started the IFCN and Poynter generously agreed to be its home. And then we hired Alexios as the leader.

Since then, there are have been two common themes. One you hear so often that it’s become my mantra: Fact-checking keeps growing. Our latest census of fact-checking in the Reporters’ Lab shows 149 active fact-checking projects and I’m glad to see that number keep going up and up.

The other theme, as I noted earlier, is community. I thought I’d focus this morning on a few examples.

Let’s start with Mexico, where more than 60 publishers, universities and civil society organizations have started Verificado 2018, a remarkable collaboration. It was originally focused largely on false news, but they’ve put more emphasis on fact-checking because of public demand. Daniel Funke wrote a great piece last week about how they checked a presidential debate.

In Norway, an extraordinary team of rivals has come together to create Faktisk, which is Norwegian for “actually” and “factually.” It launched nearly a year ago with four of the country’s biggest news organizations — VG, Dagbladet, NRK and TV 2 – and it’s grown since then. My colleague Mark Stencel likened it to the New York Times, The Washington Post and PBS launching a fact-checking project together.

 

At Duke, both of our big projects are possible because of the fact-checkers’ commitment to help each other. The first, Share the Facts and the creation of the ClaimReview schema, grew out of an idea from Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post Fact Checker, who suggested that Google put “fact-check” tags on search results.

That idea became our Duke-Google-Schema.org collaboration that created what many of you now use so search engines can find your work. And one unintended consequence: it makes automated fact-checking more possible. It all started because of one fact-checker’s sense of community.

Also, FactStream, the new app of our Tech & Check Cooperative, has been a remarkable collaboration between the big US fact-checkers — the Post, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. All three took part in the beta test of the first version, our live coverage of the State of the Union address back in January. Getting them together on the same app was pretty remarkable. But our new version of the app –which we’re releasing this week – is even cooler. It’s like collaboration squared, or collaboration to the second power!

It took Glenn’s idea, which created the Share the Facts widget, and combined it with an idea from Eugene Kiely, the head of FactCheck.org, who said we should create a new feature on FactStream that shows the latest U.S. widgets every day.

So that’s what we did. And you know what: it’s a great new feature that reveals new things about our political discourse. Every day, it shows the latest fact-checks in a constant stream and users can click through, driving new traffic to the fact-checking sites. I’ll talk more about it during the automated demo session on Friday. But it wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the commitment to collaboration and community by Glenn and Eugene.

We’ve got a busy few days ahead, so let’s get on with it. There sure are a lot of you!

As we know from the photographs: fact-checking keeps growing.

 

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A big year for fact-checking, but not for new U.S. fact-checkers

Following a historic pattern, the number of American media outlets verifying political statements dropped after last year's presidential campaign.

By Mark Stencel – December 13, 2017 | Print this article

All the talk about political lies and misinformation since last year’s election has been good for the fact-checking business in the United States — but it has not meant an increase in fact-checkers. In fact, the number has dropped, much as we’ve come to expect during odd-numbered years in the United States.

We’re still editing and adding to our global list of fact-checkers for the annual census we’ll publish in January. Check back with us then for the final tally. But the trend line in the United States already is following a pattern we’ve seen before in the year after a presidential election: At the start of 2017, there were 51 active U.S. fact checkers, 35 of which were locally oriented and 16 of which were nationally focused. Now there are 44, of which 28 are local and 16 are mainly national.

This count includes some political fact-checkers that are mainly seasonal players. These news organizations have consistently fact-checked politicians’ statements through political campaigns, but then do little if any work verifying during the electoral “offseason.” And not all the U.S. fact-checkers in our database focus exclusively — or even at all — on politics. Sites such as Gossip Cop, Snopes.com and Climate Feedback are in the mix, too.

The story is different elsewhere in the world, where we have seen continuing growth in the number of fact-checking ventures, especially in countries that held elections and weathered national political scandals. Again, our global census isn’t done yet, but so far we’ve counted 137 active fact-checking projects around the world — up from 114 at the start of the year. And we expect more to come — offsetting the number of international fact-checkers that closed down in other countries after the preceding year’s elections.

Still, the number of U.S. fact-checkers accounts for about a third of the projects that appear in the Reporters’ Lab’s database, even after this year’s drop.

So why do so many U.S. fact-checkers close up shop after elections? PolitiFact founder Bill Adair, who now runs the Reporters’ Lab and Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, asked that question in a New York Times op-ed on the eve of last year’s election. He attributed the retraction in part to the fact-checkers’ traditional focus on claims made in political ads, which was how the movement began in the early 1990s. Also, newsroom staffing and budgets often shrink after the votes are counted. That’s too bad, because, as Bill noted, “politicians don’t stop lying on Election Day.”

A handful of U.S. newcomers began fact-checking in 2017. One was Indy Fact Check. It’s a project of The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit news site based in Las Vegas. The Independent got its feet wet in January with a look at the accuracy of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s 2017 State of the State address before launching a regular fact-checking series in June.

An “Almost Abe” rating from Indy Fact Check in Nevada. (The Nevada Independent)

To rate the claims it reports on, Indy Fact Check uses a sliding, true-to-false scale illustrated with cartoon versions of Abraham Lincoln. The facial expression on “Honest Abe” changes with each rating, which run from “Honest as Abe” and “Almost Abe” on the true side to “Hardly Abe” and “All Hat, no Abe” on the false side.

One of Indy Fact Check’s regular contributors is Riley Snyder, who previously was the reporter at PolitiFact Nevada at KTNV-TV (13 Action News). KTNV was one of several local news outlets owned by Scripps TV Station Group that briefly served as PolitiFact state affiliates before closing down the partnership — after the 2016 election, of course. So in Nevada at least, one site closes and another opens.

Another new player in the U.S. fact-checking market this year was The Weekly Standard. This conservative publication based in Washington has a dedicated fact-checker, Holmes Lybrand, who does not contribute to the political commentary and reporting for which the Standard is generally known. With this structural separation, it recently became a verified signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. The Standard is owned by Clarity Media Group, a division of the Anschutz Entertainment Group that also publishes the Washington Examiner and Red Alert Politics.

By January, we may have a few more additions to add to our 2017 tally, but that won’t change the bottom line. This was a year of retraction in the U.S. That’s similar to the pattern our database shows after the last presidential election, in 2013, when PunditFact was the only new U.S. fact-checker.

But the numbers began to grow again a year later, during the midterm election in 2014, and continued from there. Because of the large number of candidates and the early start of the 2016 presidential debate and primary process, a number of new fact-checkers launched in 2015. So we’ll be watching for similar patterns in the United States over the next two years.

Student researcher Riley Griffin contributed to this report.

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At Global Fact 4: churros, courage and the need to expose propagandists

The next challenge for the Global Fact community: calling out governments and political actors that pretend to be fact-checkers.

By Bill Adair – July 6, 2017 | Print this article

My opening remarks at Global Fact 4, the fourth annual meeting of the world’s fact-checkers, organized by the International Fact-Checking Network and the Reporters’ Lab, held July 5-7, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.

It’s wonderful to be here in Madrid. I’ve been enjoying the city the last two days, which has made me think of a giant warehouse store we have in the United States called Costco.

Costco where you go when you want to buy 10 pounds of American Cheese or a 6-pound tub of potato salad. Costco also makes a delicious fried pastry called a “churro.” And because everything in Costco is big, the churros are about three feet long.

When I got to Madrid I was really glad to see that you have churros here, too! It’s wonderful to see that Costco is spreading its great cuisine around the world!

I’m pleased to be here with my colleagues from the Duke Reporters’ Lab — Mark Stencel, Rebecca Iannucci and Riley Griffin. We also have our Share the Facts team here – Chris Guess and Erica Ryan. We’ll be sampling the churros throughout the week!

It’s been an amazing year for fact-checking. In the U.K., Full Fact and Channel 4 mobilized for Brexit and last month’s parliamentary elections. In France, the First Draft coalition showed the power of collaborations during the elections there. In the United States, the new president and his administration drove record traffic to sites such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker — and that has continued since the election, a time when sites typically have lower traffic. The impeachments and political scandals in Brazil and South Korea also meant big audiences for fact-checkers in those countries. And we expect the upcoming elections in Germany, Norway and elsewhere will generate many opportunities for fact-checkers in those countries as well, just as we’ve seen in Turkey and Iran. The popular demand for fact-checking has never been stronger.

Fact-checking is now so well known that it is part of pop culture. Comedians cite our work to give their jokes credibility. On Saturday Night Live last fall, Australian actress Margot Robbie “fact-checked” her opening monologue when she was the guest host.

Some news organizations not only have their own dedicated fact-checking teams, they’re also incorporating fact-checks in their news stories, calling out falsehoods at the moment they are uttered. This is a marvelous development because it helps to debunk falsehoods before they can take root.

We’ve also seen tremendous progress in automation to spread fact-checking to new audiences. There are promising projects underway at Full Fact in Britain and at the University of Texas in Arlington and in our own lab at Duke, among many others. We’ll be talking a lot about these projects this week.

Perhaps the most important development in the past year is one that we started at last year’s Global Fact conference in Buenos Aires – the Code of Principles. We came up with some excellent principles that set standards for transparency and non-partisan work. As Alexios noted, Facebook is using the code to determine which organizations qualify to debunk fake news. I hope your site will abide by the code and become a signatory.

At Duke, Mark just finished our annual summer count of fact-checking. Mark and Alexios like to tease me that I can’t stop repeating this mantra: “Fact-checking keeps growing.”

But it’s become my mantra because it’s true: When we held our first Global Fact meeting in 2014 in London, our Reporters’ Lab database listed 48 fact-checking sites around the world. Our latest count shows 126 active projects in 49 countries.

I’m thrilled to see fact-checking sprouting in countries such as South Korea and Germany and Brazil. And I continue to be amazed at the courage of our colleagues who check claims in Turkey and Iran, which are not very welcoming to our unique kind of journalism.

As our movement grows, we face new challenges. Now that our work is so well-known and an established form of journalism, governments and political actors are calling themselves fact-checkers, using our approach to produce propaganda. We need to speak out against this and make sure people know that government propagandists are not fact-checkers.

We also need to work harder to reach audiences that have been reluctant to accept our work. At Duke we published a study that showed a stark partisan divide in the United States. We found liberal publications loved fact-checking and often cited it; conservative sites criticized it and often belittled it. We need to focus on this problem and find new ways to reach reluctant audiences.

I’m confident we can accomplish these things. Individually and together we’ve overcome great hurdles in the past few years. I look forward to a productive meeting and a great year. And I’m confident:

Fact-checking will keep growing.

 

 

 

 

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