PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — In a world of 140-character tweets and political attack ads posted on YouTube, information has become easier to access and easier to release. It’s also become more difficult to discern between what information is true and what is false. FactCheck.org rose to the challenge of making those calls in political discourse leading up to the 2004 election and has continued to play a key role in reducing political deception and the spread of misinformation ever since.
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The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center launched FactCheck.org in 2003 under the guidance of APPC Director Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson, a political journalist who pioneered CNN’s “adwatch” and “factcheck” stories around the 1992 presidential election. Jackson and Hall have authored books on deceptive politics and co-authored unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. The aim of their FactCheck.org is to reduce confusion in American politics and monitor accuracy in political ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases with deep, well-sourced analysis. Its founders say they were answering a demand. As Jackson puts it, “The public was hungry for an honest broker to sort out the fact from the fiction.”
Though FactCheck has received support from big name foundations throughout it’s existence(see data below), 2010 marked a small change for the site as it began accepting unsolicited donations from individuals. In order to maintain transparency, and to live by its own principles, FactCheck.org discloses its finances on its About Us page and will release the name and location of individuals donating more than $1,000. The new funders are not the only recent change: originally with offices in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, FactCheck.org will now move all offices to the APPC’s new HQ on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.
FactCheck.org enjoys an average of just under 100,000 unique visitors a day and recently peaked during the 2010 midterm elections–spikes typically follow the election cycle. With no copyright on its postings, material can be freely circulated to outlets and Jackson has no qualms about the matter. After all, for a nonprofit site that works to defeat misinformation, presenting the facts to as many people as possible is a top priority.
Despite the high traffic and the detailed, research-rich content, FactCheck.org operates with a full-time staff of only six people–with three more to join them in the site’s future home at the University of Pennsylvania–and seven paid interns, who Jackson notes are practically full-time reporters. And while traffic may peak around election time, the team works year-round on its fact-checking mission. Some of the most widely misreported issues they’ve found, such as President George W. Bush’s appointments of Supreme Court justices and President Barack Obama’s health care reform, occurred outside of the election cycle. Continuing to expand it’s reach, FactCheck.org has also launched a spin-off site called FactCheckED.org, an online resource for educators that offers lesson plans on topics such as building strong arguments and resources like lists of websites that provide impartial information.
For all the resources available on FactCheck, Jackson believes there is more to be done, particularly as politicians bypass reporters to disseminate their views–and sometimes lies–on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (“misTweets” as they are called on FactCheck.org). “Journalists used to be ‘gatekeepers,’ but there aren’t ‘gates’ anymore and people are bewildered by how to sort information out,” says Jackson. “We as journalists need to be a referee or an umpire of sorts.”
City: Philadelphia, Pa.