In the ongoing fight against a torrent of political misinformation, fact-checkers must carefully choose their battles.
I spent my semester at PolitiFact’s Washington, D.C., bureau through the Reynolds Journalism Institute Student Innovation Fellowship program, helping fact-check in the weeks leading up to and following the 2018 midterm election. My early assignments focused in part on learning what makes a good fact to check — a task I discovered was trickier than just snatching a quote out of a Sunday show transcript.
Political fact-checkers look at statements and lay out evidence to show to what degree the claim is accurate. I talked with PolitiFact editor Angie Holan, FactCheck.org executive director Eugene Kiely and Washington Post Fact Checker columnist Glenn Kessler about their strategies for identifying which claims get checked and which don’t.
While each organization varies somewhat, I found several common ways fact-checkers decide.
Opinions don’t work. Neither do predictions. First and foremost, what fact-checkers check must be checkable — something that can be proven or disproven.
That can be easier said than done.
“People have the assumption that fact-checking is pretty straightforward and you pick out a claim and then you check it,” Holan said. “But a lot of claims often have a flavor of opinion and can be very tricky to fact-check.”
Fact-checking outfits comb through talk show and C-SPAN transcripts, campaign ads, social media, reader suggestions and look for curious claims that aren’t ambiguous, convoluted or an obvious slip of the tongue.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” a Nov. 10 Trump tweet read. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Fact-checkers spoke with experts about factors contributing to the wildfires. The three organizations separately concluded that Trump’s blame on state-level forest management was misplaced and his statement was overly simplistic and false.
Other Trump statements, such as when he uses the phrase “witch hunt,” fall more in line with opinion over fact.
The continuous torrent of political claims from every level of politics requires fact-checkers to be selective.
All three fact-checking organizations focus on checking claims from the president.
“He’s the leader of the free world,” Kiely said. “We comb through everything we can get our hands on that the president says or does.”
Kiely said that’s a practice FactCheck.org has employed since its beginning, regardless of the president sitting in the office.
Holan said PolitiFact also focuses on the president, sometimes maybe more than she would like. However, she said it was difficult to give him less coverage because when someone with that much power makes a false claim, it’s a fact-checker’s responsibility to hold them accountable.
Fact-checkers also look at congressional leaders, candidates in tight Senate, governor or House of Representatives races and newsmakers. Within those categories, the organizations also look to readers for statements that make them say, “Hmm.”
PolitiFact estimates about 30 percent of its fact checks come from readers, and the Washington Post Fact Checker team estimates about half. Factcheck.org has a special section of its website dedicated to answering reader inquiries.
But resources are a factor.
In 2016, when 17 people sought the Republican presidential nomination, Kiely said his staff focused on frontrunners.
“There are going to be people you don’t even write about,” he said.
Then there’s the math: There have been more Republicans in Congress, so there will be more statements by GOP members than Democrats.
But in 2010, Kiely said, FactCheck.org probably wrote more about Democratic ads because Democrats were “throwing things out there that were over the top” as they fought to keep control of the House.
Even if a claim is false, fact-checkers tend to prioritize claims that aren’t obviously false to the average person. They also devote less time to repeated claims they’ve already checked, often opting to fold them into larger stories analyzing numerous statements made in a speech, interview or series of social media posts.
In 2017, Kessler and his team started a database collecting Trump’s misleading and false statements, in part because they found many of his claims were repetitive and lacked the substance to merit a full fact-check. Their most recent update had Trump at 6,420 misleading or false statements in 649 days.
“There are lots of things we say are not worth a full-fledged fact-check because you can debunk it in 140 characters on Twitter,” Kessler said.
Factcheck.org does not publish fact checks on true statements, staying in line with its mission to cut through political spin for its readers, Kiely said.
“We’re not going to give politicians bonus points for being accurate,” Kiely said.
Fact-checkers also devote their time to vetting claims about policy being debated in Congress and making headlines.
Kessler said the goal of his column is to educate people about complex policy issues, and he saw the statements he checked as “entry points” into those issues.
“The idea is if you regularly read the Washington Post Fact Checker, you will have a better understanding of the complexity of policy-making in Washington,” Kessler said.
Some bread-and-butter policy issues, Holan said, include economy, taxes, climate change and education. Recently, PolitiFact has focused on statements about immigration, as that was a prominent topic leading up to the election and is a regular talking point for the president.
Regardless of approach, Kiely said sometimes it’s “eerie” how often the three organizations end up checking the same statement.
“I think that the big three, PolitiFact, The Washington Post and us, regardless of whether you have a rating or not, the stories are and the reporting is solid and very similar in approaches that we all take when you strip everything down,” Kiely said. “I think it shows regardless of what approach any of us take, the facts are the facts”