With the trio of PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog now well-established, the factchecking space might seem crowded, but a new entrant is poised to take the movement in an important, and largely uncharted, direction. The site, TruePolitics, which has been in a privately-funded pilot phase since early September, plans to scrutinize the accuracy of statements made by politicians in the New York City metro area, including Connecticut and New Jersey, starting early next year. Though PolitiFact operates an affiliate network of state-based sites run by partner media organizations, TruePolitics would be the first major factchecking website in the U.S. with a state and local focus—a promising development given the likelihood that state and local politicians will be more responsive to media scrutiny.
As TruePolitics editor Benjamin Lesser and I discussed in a recent interview, the site hopes to hold politicians in the New York metro area accountable to a greater extent than has ever been possible before. (Disclosures: I have been in contact with Lesser and offered suggestions to him on the development of the site informally since May. A co-author and I are currently applying for a grant that would support a collaboration with Lesser and his team to measure the effectiveness of their factchecking and test approaches to improving it.) What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange by e-mail over the past few days.
What is TruePolitics? Can you tell CJR readers about the motivation for creating it, the vision that you and your board have for the site, and what you hope to contribute to the debate in the New York area?
The idea is to create a truly independent factchecking operation dedicated to covering politicians in the New York metro area (NY, NJ, CT). Factchecking has really taken off over the last several years and we saw a real need for a full-time, stand-alone outfit here in New York. So over the last several months we’ve begun the process of taking this idea, which originated from the chairman of our Board of Directors, Fergus Reid, and making it a reality. We are in the midst of our fundraising drive now, and once we launch in early 2014 we want to quickly become the go-to source for factchecking in the New York metro area.
Our plan is to marry the traditional journalistic aspect of factchecking work with formal academic research that, hopefully, will provide us, and other factcheckers, with the information we need improve the effectiveness of this kind of reporting.
Our work will serve two purposes: First, to hold elected officials and candidates accountable for the claims they make and; second, to give voters a clear and concise explanation of the claims made in advertisements and statements.
I know that you reviewed the work of the elite factcheckers and the debate over their approach before creating TruePolitics. What have you concluded about best practices for factchecking and how do you plan to you put those ideas into practice in your site’s rating system and writing style? What will make your approach distinctive?
Well, over the last several months we had some good discussions with the people like Bill Adair at Politifact, Brooks Jackson and Eugene Kiely at Factcheck.org, and academics like you and Lucas Graves at Wisconsin, among others, about what we can learn from the work done over the last several years or so and how to move this critical form of journalism forward.
I’ve taken away a couple of key lessons:
1. Don’t amplify the misinformation. The whole point of this kind of work is to debunk disinformation so, for example, if TruePolitics determines that an ad is misleading or inaccurate, we won’t embed the video of the ad on our site.
2. Make content accessible. This is critical—if readers come to your site and find the articles to be overly academic (no offense!) then they’ll probably get bored and go back to checking their Twitter feed. So we will keep our articles short while still providing the necessary information to support our findings.
And as part of making our work accessible we’ve also developed a unique rating system that I think people will find easy to understand. I won’t get into the details but I’m very excited to see what people think once we go live in 2014.
Your site will will focus on politicians in New York metro area, which recently featured a high-profile city mayoral election that wrapped up last Tuesday. How well did you think the race was covered? Was there enough factchecking? Is factchecking still important even when the election is headed for a landslide?