Bill Adair, setting pants ablaze no more

The PolitiFact founder on his move to academia and the state of the factchecking movement

The Tampa Bay Times announced last week that Bill Adair, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief and the founder and editor of the award-winning factchecking website PolitiFact, is resigning to take a position as the Knight Professor of Computational Journalism at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy (where I went to graduate school). He will remain a contributing editor at PolitiFact.

As a political scientist who studies misinformation and the former editor of a factchecking website, I have known Adair for several years and followed his work closely since PolitiFact was founded. He and I discussed his decision and the state of the factchecking movement in an online exchange on Friday. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Brendan Nyhan: Bill, congratulations on your appointment. Could you tell us why you decided to take this position and what you hope to accomplish? Your predecessor at Duke, Sarah Cohen, helped develop Reporter’s Lab, a computational journalism initiative, before leaving for The New York Times. Do you envision pursuing a similar initiative centered around factchecking or will you have a broader portfolio?

Bill Adair: I plan to build on Sarah’s great work and use the Reporter’s Lab to experiment with new forms of journalism.

I think we need to try new approaches. We’re living in a digital age when the Web and mobile devices have given us a new canvas to create different story forms, but journalism is largely stuck in the 20th century, relying on old-media approaches like the inverted pyramid news story. We need to try some new ways of telling stories and conveying information that really harness the power of our digital age.

There are a few evangelists who are doing this, such as Reg Chua at Thomson Reuters. But too much of our journalism is still being told the old way.

At PolitiFact, we created two new story forms—the Truth-O-Meter fact-check and the campaign promise update for our Obameter. I want to explore creating other new forms that news organizations can use, particularly for coverage of government.

BN: That sounds very promising, especially given that the inverted pyramid structure often highlights misinformation rather than corrective information. Do you have any specific ideas that you want to explore about how to present factchecking or cover misleading claims more effectively? My research suggests, for instance, that graphical corrections are more effective than text.

BA: I’m looking more broadly than just factchecking because I think there’s a great need to try new ways of presenting information. But I remain very interested in what works and what doesn’t work in presenting factchecking information, and I’d love to explore ways that we can make factchecks more effective.

BN: Now seems like a good time to look back at what you’ve accomplished at PolitiFact, which has become the most influential factchecker in the business, including winning a Pulitzer Prize. What are you most proud of about your work there? And what you think the next steps are for the factchecking movement in general and specifically for PolitiFact?

BA: I’m really proud of the way we were able to expand to the states. We have 10 state PolitiFact sites in key places such as Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia, where reporters for our partner news organizations do Truth-O-Meter fact-checks.

Letting someone else use our prize-winning brand was a risk. But we applied lessons from the fast food industry (conduct lots of training, provide good manuals, and do quality control checks) —and it’s worked well. Last year, the factchecking by our partners at the Cleveland Plain Dealer was really important in the U.S. Senate race. (Editor’s Note: CJR wrote about the PolitiFact Ohio’s campaign coverage here and here.)

I think PolitiFact’s next step is to keep expanding. We want to find partners in the remaining states and see if we can expand internationally. We are partnering with a respected Australian journalist to launch PolitiFact Australia later this spring. If that goes well, we’ll consider other countries.

BN: What are the larger lessons that you’ve learned from this process about how best to train journalists in factchecking? I’m thinking of both media organizations that want to scale up their use of the approach internally as well as journalism training in academic institutions. In both cases, one obstacle seems to be shifting reporters’ mindset and approach away from traditional “he said, she said” reporting.

BA: One lesson is the importance of original sources. It’s striking how often journalists rely on each other’s work without verifying it. Lou Jacobson, one of our reporters, wrote a story last year about how the media kept repeating a statistic that 85 percent of college graduates return to live with their parents. It had bounced around the media echo chamber, getting repeated in Time magazine and CNN/Money and other outlets—because it was a classic case of a number that was “too good to check.” No one had bothered to see if the “study” was valid. We did and found there was nothing to back up the number.

I agree with you about changing the mindset away from the he said-she said. I think that’s one unfortunate reaction to our polarized discourse. Many journalists are afraid to say something is false for fear they will be called biased.

We sometimes get criticized by people who say that our work is opinion and belongs on the op-ed page. But I disagree. I call it “reported conclusion” journalism. We are doing thorough reporting and then drawing a conclusion on whether something is true, false or somewhere between.

When I started PolitiFact, I thought only the most experienced journalists would be able to do that. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that some young reporters do, too.

BN: To what extent are you concerned about the ghettoization of factchecking? Do you think that journalists and media organizations should integrate it into mainstream coverage rather than relegating it to sidebars or outsourcing the job to specialized factcheckers like PolitiFact?

BA: That doesn’t worry me much. First, we’re early in the factchecking revolution, so it’s going to take a while for news organizations to realize they should put resources behind it.

Also, as Lucas Graves has documented with his research, it’s become more common for news organizations to cite fact-checks—or even simply say a claim is false—in their mainbars. I’ve seen the same thing on TV, where a CNN reporter will refer to a line in a commercial and say, “…a claim that PolitiFact found to be a Pants on Fire falsehood.”

I think the bigger need is for news organizations to realize that factchecking isn’t just for election years. There was lots of great factchecking last year by The New York Times and AP and the networks. But most of them have stopped because they wrongly think of factchecking as a campaign thing. It’s as important to check claims when politicians are governing as when they are campaigning.

BN: Here’s a related question about scope. PolitiFact and other factcheckers focus a great deal of their attention on politics at the federal level, particularly presidential campaigns. While there’s certainly a great need for scrutiny of national politics, I wonder if more attention and resources should be shifted to factchecking at lower levels of government, where people often have much less information and the officials tend to face less media scrutiny. The difficulty, of course, is that audience demand for coverage is often weaker at lower levels as well. Should more resources be allocated to state and local factchecking rather than, say, the 22nd misleading presidential campaign ad to run in Ohio?

BA: Absolutely! The challenge is that news organizations are so strapped that they are looking for things to cut, not things to add such as factchecking.

I’m hopeful they’ll realize that factchecking is a good investment—and one that readers love.

We’ve shown that local factchecking can be done by small newspapers like our partner in New Hampshire, the Telegraph. And I think editors around the country will begin to see that they don’t necessarily need to hire a full team of factcheckers. They just need to train their beat reporters how to do it on the mayor and city council members.

BN: Last question. You mentioned a PolitiFact partnership in Australia, which also came up in your newspaper’s coverage of the announcement. Can you tell us more about that initiative and what the challenges are in translating your model to a country with a different political and media culture? (Do you need different labels for the ratings scales?)

BA: For the past couple of months we’ve been working with Peter Fray, the former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, who approached us about starting PolitiFact Australia. We’re hoping to get it launched very soon.

The challenge is very similar to what we faced with our state expansion—trusting our brand to other journalists—with the added layer of the different country that is on the other side of the planet. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Peter and I’m confident that, while there are some differences, he and his reporters will share our passion for in-depth journalism and will do excellent work.

We discussed some different ratings for an Australian Truth-O-Meter, but we’ve pretty much concluded that our scale will work well. (A bigger challenge for me: Resisting the urge to make Crocodile Dundee jokes.)

I think it will be enlightening for us to see how they do PolitiFact factchecking in a different country. I think we’ll learn a lot.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , ,