Factchecking goes local in New York

The founding editor of TruePolitics talks about the soon-to-launch site

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?

We will initially focus our efforts on the New York area but, if we are successful, we plan on expanding our coverage area to include the beginnings of the presidential race in 2015 while still maintaining a primary focus on local politicians and issues.

The election was an interesting one and while there was some factchecking work done by The New York Times and other news organizations, there definitely wasn’t enough. As you know, we were running our pilot program during the election and there were times where I wanted to just throw the site up and start publishing when I saw inaccurate or misleading claims being repeated over and over again. But it was important for us to develop and refine our editorial processes and to make sure that we are hitting on all cylinders when we launch next year.

When we do start operating next year, we hope to become not just a source for voters but a resource for other journalists as well, who often don’t have the time to do this sort work in the midst of covering the daily grind of a campaign.

Whenever there’s a race for a high profile office, factchecking has a role to play regardless of what the polls say. Candidates for office, even those headed to a big victory, need to know that the claims they make may be factchecked—not just while they are running for office, but while they are in office as well.

You mentioned the time and resource constraints facing traditional journalists who encounter questionable claims. Can you tell us more about your background as a journalist—how you came to factchecking, and how your experience as a reporter in the New York/New Jersey area informs your work for TruePolitics?

Time is always a factor in reporting, especially as newspapers continue to decline and are forced to cut staff to survive. The remaining editorial staff are faced with producing more and more copy, often on tight deadlines, which doesn’t leave much space to spend a day factchecking a political advertisement. And of course, there is also the issue of potential blowback if a reporter covering a campaign calls out a candidate for making an inaccurate claim. The reporter has to consider the reaction of the campaign to such a move —will they get frozen out? That’s not something a beat reporter can afford. Our operation will have no such concerns. We’re not interested in maintaining “access” to the candidate or the campaign. That’s not our job.

As for my past, I spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter after graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1999. I spent a little over six years at the The Record in North Jersey and then, beginning in 2006, another six years as a member of the investigative reporting team at the New York Daily News. The investigative work I’ve done in the past has certainly prepared me for the careful research necessary to properly factcheck claims. The data analysis skills I’ve developed over the years will also come in handy.

Early in 2013, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to two gentlemen, Fergus Reid (recently retired chairman of the JP Morgan Mutual Fund Board) and Carl Frischling (senior partner at Kramer Levin, a well-known law firm in New York), who were convinced that New York needed an outfit like TruePolitics. After some discussions, Fergus and Carl brought me onboard to start organizing this effort. (I’m also currently working as a researcher at the City University of New York and teaching at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism—both on a part-time basis).

I’ve been lucky enough to hire two outstanding veteran New York journalists in Patrice O’Shaughnessy and Robert Gearty to fill out our editorial team. They each have more than 30 years of experience in New York. In my opinion, that kind of institutional knowledge of New York issues and politics is invaluable in this kind of an operation. There is no substitute for experience.

How do you plan to attract and sustain interest in factchecks of lower-level officials in and around New York, which I’ve suggested is a key obstacle to state and local factchecking? The New York City mayoral election was high profile but other city, county, and state officials around the area may be of less interest. Or do you expect that your main avenue of influence will be through the journalists who already cover those officials for their local communities?

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