SXSW: Politifact’s recipe for fact-checking success

Fact-checking is becoming increasingly common at news organisations around the world, particularly in pre-election periods. But Politifact was one of the first, and still is one of the most structured initiatives, noted Steve Myers, managing editor of The Lens, at a SXSW panel on Fast Food & Fact-Checking: Lessons from Politifact.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 13, 2013

Politifact takes statements by politicians and pundits, creator and editor Bill Adair explained, and investigates whether they are true or false. Each statement is given a rating, from ‘true’ to ‘pants on fire, and this is displayed on a ‘Truth-O-Meter’ at the start of each story.

Part of the role of the Truth-O-Meter is that it provides an easily-accessible summary of the conclusion of the fact-checking process, so that even if people don’t want to read the whole story, they will still be able to tell if a statement was true or not. “I am always amazed by the people in journalism who believe that everyone should read every long article,” Adair said.

The most important question when deciding which statements to fact check is “would your average reader look at that and wonder – is it true?” The second is, is it verifiable? By its very nature, fact-checking is about checking facts, not opinions and predictions. If there is clearly going to be a lack of consensus, Politifact will publish an article but won’t necessarily do a fact-check.

Politifact now partners with papers in ten states across the US. “This is radically different journalism,” Adair said. “You are saying that the President of the United States made a false statement.” With this in mind, he has laid out the essentials of the fact-checking process:

  1. Context – why this statement? Who was the speaker trying to appeal to?
  2. The statement in full, to demonstrate the context
  3. The pivot – transition from statement to analysis
  4. Facts and analysis: this is the meat of the fact-check.
  5. The ruling explained – also serves as a summary

Every source used is listed at the end of each article.

Politifact’s work has had some concrete impact on politicians’ behaviour, Adair said; for example, an Obama campaign ad was changed and Obama corrected himself on a health statement. “We know his research team follows us closely,” Adair added. “But my job as a journalist is not to get people to stop lying, it’s to inform people and allow them to make informed decisions.”

One way that Politifact makes its information particularly accessible to readers is to structure its fact-checks so that they can be filtered and reassembled in useful ways. Fact-checks can be sorted by speaker, by subject, by campaign, or by rating. This method of building the site was inspired by Adrian Holovaty’s Django, Adair said.

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