This is an area where partnerships with local media will play an important role. We intend to partner with local media organizations in every market (NYC, Upstate NY, NJ, CT) we cover. Not only will we offer our partners the ability to use our content but an editor at a partner organization can give us a call and say, “Hey, we’ve got a local official making a claim and we’d like your team to check it out.” We won’t ask our partners to dedicate staffers to work with us—we’ll handle the factchecking; our partners just need to keep an eye out for questionable claims during the course of their usual newsgathering operations.
So these partnership arrangements can multiply by many times over our ability to find and debunk inaccurate or misleading claims at the local level. And if it creates an environment where local offices know they may be subject to a factcheck—as your recent work has found, just that knowledge can make a difference.
Why did you reach out to me and other academics? How does social science inform what you do at TruePolitics, and how can journalists learn from and collaborate with social scientists more effectively?
When I started the preliminary research for this organization, I knew I needed to reach out not just to factcheckers, but also to academics and even campaign officials. I wanted to get every perspective I could on the state of the factchecking movement and what, if anything, could be done better. I’m interested not just in doing good journalism and informing the public but informing them in a way that actually reduces their belief in inaccurate information. It’s a tall order, and certainly all the research I’ve reviewed from you and others shows that there isn’t a simple formula to reduce the effects of misinformation. But it’s critical that we take advantage of the work done by social scientists to make this effort as effective as possible.
And I certainly think there are other areas outside of factchecking where journalists could collaborate with, or at least be aware of the work done by, social scientists—especially in political reporting. Much of the campaign reporting we see now, certainly on the national level, revolves around the importance of “gaffes” or other notable “moments” but there’s so much research out there that tends to show us that election results aren’t determined those moments. There was a good article by Ezra Klein in The Washington Post on this issue just this past Saturday.
You probably can’t comment specifically on donors or grant requests, but I wonder if you have any broader thoughts about the challenges and opportunities for funding factchecking, which has been pieced together in unusual ways via a for-profit newspaper (The Washington Post), a newspaper owned by a nonprofit (Politifact/Tampa Bay Times), and an academic institution (Factcheck.org, which is part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania). The fact that you’ve attracted support from individual donors with a finance background like Reid and Frischling is an intriguing development. Do you think there more people out there who will be willing to provide the resources necessary to scale up factchecking? Obviously it’s a difficult time to raise funds for any media project.
I think we are seeing a change across the industry. More people in a position to help are doing so as they watch the existing news business going through an extremely difficult transition. Just over the last few months we’ve seen Jeff Bezos buy The Washington Post and now the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, is starting a new media operation. (Editor’s note: Omidyar’s philanthropic foundation provides major support for CJR’s United States Project.)
I’m confident that regardless of what happens to newspapers there will still be a space for robust, serious journalism. In the meetings we’ve had so far with potential donors we’ve seen real enthusiasm for factchecking and frustration with the current state of affairs. We will be formed as a nonprofit organization so we aren’t trying to sell a business plan predicated on the ability to make money, but simply on the need to do this work and do it right. So I’m optimistic that we will be in a position to launch next year.
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