OHIO — “Just the facts, ma’am.”
At the risk of exposing my, er, maturity, I thought that phrase, famously attributed to Detective Joe Friday of the old Dragnet television series, was the perfect opening for this post on our state’s dedicated fact-checking site, PolitiFact Ohio. (It seemed even more apt when I made a surprising discovery about Friday’s line, which I’ll clarify below.)
The role of fact-checking, after all, is at the center of current discourse about journalism. Consider the acerbic reaction that erupted after New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane asked readers if reporters should “challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” The Times shut down the comments section after the column received 265 responses in three hours. Writing at Nieman Lab, Lucas Graves offered the best summary of the feedback:
Times to Internet: Should we fact-check the things politicians’ say?Both Graves and Felix Salmon, here at CJR, picked up on another thread—the way that fact-checking, even as it has exploded, has evolved into a “specialized form of journalism relegated to the sidebar or a separate site.” And they pondered whether it will, or could be, absorbed into everyday political coverage.
Internet to Times: Are you freaking kidding?
Given that background, it seemed a good moment to get a peek behind the curtain of Ohio’s franchise of PolitiFact, which is published by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. I spoke recently with Robert Higgs, the editor of PolitiFact Ohio, which was launched in July 2010. Prior to Higgs’s full-time work with PolitiFact, he was the newspaper’s online medical editor and was also a deputy metro editor.
Only one reporter, Tom Feran, has been assigned to write for the site full time, but other regular contributors include the PD’s political reporter, Henry Gomez, along with reporters in Cleveland and the Washington and Columbus Statehouse bureaus. Like its parent, the Tampa Bay Times’s PolitiFact.com, the Ohio project’s website features a “Truth-O-Meter” to rate the statements of public figures and delivers ratings ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Stories also run in the print edition and appear on Cleveland.com, the main site for The Plain Dealer, and are featured on PolitiFact Ohio’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Occasionally, the state’s other newspapers pick up PolitiFact Ohio stories, too.
Higgs and I discussed how the operation works, who reads the posts, and how, if at all, the fact-checking project has influenced regular news coverage and the candidates themselves. An edited transcript of our conversation appears here.
How does reporting for PolitiFact Ohio compare to reporting a regular story?
For reporters it is very much the same kind of process. They still have to go out and gather data and they do research and interviews. But you can’t do a he-said, she-said type story.
They have to go back and check data independently. It’s not so much that we play “gotcha,” but we try and sort out when a line is used as a sound bite to see how much truth is behind it. It’s sort of like doing investigative reporting.
Where it differs greatly is that in a typical news story, a reporter wouldn’t say a politician is wrong about this subject, or rate their statements false or true. And the ratings are done by editors. Three editors meet, and we decide what rating it is going to be. It’s somewhat of an editorial judgment, but sometimes it is not a judgment at all. It’s not really arguable. We have specific criteria for that.
Has doing this work changed the way reporters report for the regular news pages?
One change in particular I’ve noticed is with [PD Washington bureau chief] Steve Koff’s reporting. After he does an interview, if the subject says something that is a checkable claim, he will make sure the data they gave is accurate. It has provided the practice for doing a second layer of checks.
In 2008, the original PolitiFact launched with an idea that you can carry over into daily reporting, which is that you don’t just accept something at face value. And you learn where to find the answers, in places like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Once you become familiar with these sources they are pretty easy to navigate, and you can quickly get some answers and quantifiable facts.
We don’t get into judgment issues on daily reporting at all. If we have a reporter interviewing somebody for the paper, we don’t typically turn around and have them pluck one comment out of that interview and do a fact check on it. We could if we wanted, but it’s sort of a separation we’ve kept there.
Do the types of stories in PolitiFact Ohio influence the behavior of campaigns?