Q&A: Robert Higgs, editor of PolitiFact Ohio

On the site's mission and impact, and on "truth vigilantes"

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?

Internet to Times: Are you freaking kidding?
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.

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?

I know it has an impact. The people who get fact-checked pay attention to it. When we had the governor in not too long ago for a session with our editorial board, at some point during the conversation he made a statement about something we had already fact-checked. We had found something wrong with the version of the claim he had been using, and now he had updated how he said it. It told me he had seen the item and he had adapted the statement so it was more accurate.

I know there are legislators at the Statehouse and in Washington who have specifically instructed their staffs that everything will be double-checked before they put it in a news release. They don’t want to get caught here with a silly error.

And in the long run, it might mean you have a better-educated electorate if voters see these posts. In 2010 PolitiFact Ohio started showing up in campaign ads as a source, as an authoritative source for some of the material they were citing.

When an issue that has been evaluated by PolitiFact Ohio comes up in a campaign, will the regular political staff writers cite that work to settle disputes?

I suspect there will be times when we incorporate it into news coverage. For example, if we are covering a Gingrich appearance and he talks about Obama as the “food stamp president,” PolitiFact national has done the research on that claim and we can cite specifically what has happened with food stamps while Obama has been president, and how that compares to other presidents. That could be woven into our story line as a paragraph or two to let people know this is what we found. I don’t think it is going to happen a lot, but it could happen.

The whole idea is to try and take the spin out of the comment, so when people hear the sound bite they have an idea what is behind the sound bite.

What is your audience like? Do you have any sense of how it compares to the audience for the regular political or news coverage?

It is very diverse. I know we have readers who are very conservative, and I know we have readers who are very liberal who read it every day. I get email from all ends of the political spectrum, both criticizing us because they don’t like what we wrote or suggesting items to take a look at. I like that. I get hit from both sides, with people accusing me of having a leftist bias or an obvious conservative bent. It’s refreshing to know we are hitting somewhere down the middle.

I track page views. For 2010 we had an average of 13,700 page views a week. We got a lot of help from the general election in 2010. Last year the average was about 14,500 views a week. We broke one million page views for the site early in November last year. This year, things are picking up quickly. Now we are up to 1.1 million page views. Those views are comparable to our politics page because typically PolitiFact is at the top of the politics page.

What are the benefits of structuring work in this way? Are there any drawbacks?

I think there is a bit of specialization, in that if it is for PolitiFact the style is different. It’s more laying things out, almost like a proof for a magazine piece as opposed to the space crunch you have in a newspaper. In part that is because it is an online product first and the papers are picking it up second.

But on other hand it seems to me to be important for news media to explain the facts and explain what is true. If we are reporting things without giving any background, it’s almost like play-by-play for a sports event. I don’t think in the long run that particularly helps readers. If Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich start taking shots at each other and you hear their sound bites over and over again, but don’t have any idea of what is real there, you are no better off.

What do you think about the discussion following the Arthur Brisbane piece regarding “truth vigilantes” in The New York Times, and the failings of conventional journalism? Is that fair?

One of challenges you’ve got is that you can’t do a PolitiFact story in ten minutes or 15 minutes and file and post it online and you’re done. We are in an era where the turnaround time has shrunk dramatically. And not just for electronic media, but for print media, too, because they are often doing online posting, tweeting, and Facebook, and there is pressure to get stuff up quickly. It takes time to go and check the background on some of this.

I do think when media can check what’s behind a statement, it is important because it’s our job, basically, not just to parrot what people tell us, but to sort out what is really behind it and what’s not. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you pick a side or play “gotcha” or evaluate policy. We won’t get into policy debates; you can’t quantify that.

Some commentators have said that adding fact checks to stories, or calling someone a liar, would be too polarizing for the mainstream media. Your take?

I’m glad you mentioned “liar.” We don’t use the word “lie.” One time a year PolitiFact national does their Lie of the Year. They look at the claim most often repeated and which has the biggest impact, and they write a story about it. (For a skeptical look at that practice by CJR, see here.)

We don’t call somebody a liar at PolitiFact Ohio, probably because of the intent it is showing. We are not trying to divide in fact-checking. We will point out where something is false.

I can picture where you get into a situation, say like what you have with the British press or with other European press, where there is a lot more opinion and slant woven into the news pages. That could be polarizing. I think that is something to keep in mind, and I think that is a good thing we don’t go there.


One final note: Speaking of untruths, I decided, in the end, to fact-check that famous line attributed to Detective Joe Friday. Good thing. He never said it.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.