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.