The fact-checking explosion: in a bitter political landscape marked by rampant allegations of questionable credibility, more and more news outlets are launching truth-squad operations
Gib Heinz was clearly annoyed when the Seattle Times launched its Truth Needle, a fact-checking initiative that seeks to separate truth from fiction in political claims.
"I'm absolutely stunned by the introduction of this new feature," the Freeland, Washington, resident wrote in a letter published by the paper on August 22. "This 'Truth Needle' is going to decide whether the claims are true or false? News reporting is reporting the news and facts and letting me decide what is true or false."
Sorry, Mr. Heinz, but you'd better get used to it. Not only does it appear that fact-checking operations are here to stay, but they are growing rapidly. Just this year, at least two dozen media organizations or universities launched or joined fact-checking operations. Some are flying solo; some are joining the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact network; and others are forming new cooperatives, such as AZ Fact Check, a partnership announced in August that includes the Arizona Republic, Phoenix's 12 News and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (see Drop Cap, page 8).
In each case reporters are leaving the comfort of the press box, where they watch and report on the action, and are getting onto the field to play referee.
"It's a complete reversal of traditional journalism," says Jim Tharpe, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's PolitiFact Georgia.
The fact-checking explosion may have begun in 2004 after the media's initially flat-footed response to the attacks on Sen. John Kerry by the group that called itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (see "Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth," December 2004/January 2005). But the just-completed 2010 election featured fact-checking on steroids. A bitterly divided electorate and a political landscape replete with high-decibel claims and counterclaims on cable television and echoing throughout the blogosphere have made neutral arbiters more crucial than ever.
"I never thought journalism would be like this," says Bill Adair, the St. Petersburg Times' Washington, D.C., bureau chief and editor of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking operation that is exporting its approach to local news operations across the country. "It's just the right formula for the new era."
PolitiFact and other fact-checking ventures are filling a void in political reporting, says longtime Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder. "So often in the past, the voters have been left with nothing but a 'he said, she said--there was no third source with an objective view," Broder says, asserting that reporters are the people best equipped to serve as the arbiters of truth.
"'Who are the alternatives?' is the question," says Broder, who has covered politics for the Post since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. "In this respect, the press is becoming a little more aggressive, and that's good."
Politicians, many of whom may despise the idea of having their every word--not to mention every advertisement--scrutinized by reporters, are taking notice of the fact-checking teams. "The candidates hate these," says Rick Wiley, a national political consultant. "It's hard for them,...