By Aidan Galasso
In 2008, the St. Petersburg Times made a bold decision to launch a new online fact-checking feature called PolitiFact. Five years and one Pulitzer Prize later, fact checking is now a major part of political journalism. PolitiFact takes statements from anyone in the political “game,” whether they are speaking as part of a press conference, advertisement, legislative session or television program, and determines how true they are. According to their website, they examine the original statement and then check relevant government reports and interview impartial experts to determine how the statement rates on their Truth-O-Meter. Matt Waite, the original developer of PolitiFact who now is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, says the idea came from an unique combination of fact checking, a traditional journalistic practice, and the power of the Internet to create databases that allow people to look at a politician’s record over time. On his blog, Waite said the site bucked the “local” trend in the sense that it is seeking to reach a national audience instead of only the Tampa Bay/ St. Petersburg area. If coverage the 2012 election was any indicator, then this was a successful gamble. Media companies from MTV to the New York Times fact-checked the debates or candidates’ statements via the Internet.
Part of the reason PolitiFact is so successful is that it holds politicians accountable, which newspapers aspire to do but don’t always succeed. . Attempting to stay objective often causes journalists to write a “he said, she said” article but not verify if what was said was true or not. The site goes beyond just telling people what a candidate said. Furthermore, the site publishes explanations as to why they rated a statement a certain way and provides documentation for those who want to research the judgment further. This transparency helps make their judgments more neutral and separates them from on the opinions often shared on cable news channels. Those two factors make PolitiFact a unique product built from traditional journalistic values.
Bill Adair, the site’s founding editor, took advantage of PolitiFact winning a Pulitzer prize in 2009 and decided to expand his operation to newspapers in other states in order to create a more localized brand. Memphis’ own Commercial Appeal was a member of the PolitiFact network. This was an example of the Tampa Bay Times monetizing content originally designed to be a public service. New PolitiFact journalists were trained and monitored by Adair, but the content and research was ultimately up to them. Adair said the St. Petersburg Times collected some revenue from licensing, but also got exposure from these new deals; the state sites, in return, could get exposure on PolitiFact’s homepage. In addition to the newspapers it licenses itself out to, PolitiFact works with ABC News to fact-check guests on This Week, and they worked with NPR on the 2012 election. PolitiFact has also gone mobile and has two apps (one free) and RSS feeds available. It is also planning on expanding internationally where there is less competition.
While PolitiFact is perhaps the most famous fact-checking news outlet, it has not cornered the market. The Washington Post has a fact-checking column that gives out Pinocchios, factcheck.org covers much of the same material, and even small papers like The News Journal in Delaware have developed their own fact-checking system. However, The Pulitzer Prize gives Politifact special credibility, and its move into television and radio has put it ahead of competitors in terms of name recognition. This helps because it will attract partners who want to be part of a well-known and respected news product.
The site’s reputation is important because the access to documents for fact-checking is free, which on one hand means the cost of the product is low, but on the other means anyone can become a competitor. Having better name recognition means having a leg-up on the competition in terms of ability to create ad revenue. However, keeping the brand’s reputation at a high-level is a major challenge PolitiFact has when attempting to justify why newspapers across the country should pay to use its Truth-o-Meter.
Bill Adair’s answer to quality control is making sure partners devote substantial newsroom resources to PolitiFact. This is necessary because one drawback to PolitiFact’s well-known Truth-o-Meter is that if legislators get a bad rating, they are less likely to talk to the paper in the future. This means that PolitiFact must either generate enough income to pay for additional reporters to run the fact-checking division, or take reporters from another beat and put them on the PolitiFact desk. If a reporter is too stretched, the accuracy of the fact checking can be called into question, because they don’t have time to do adequate research. Dan Kennedy of Northeastern’s Journalism school believes that fact-checkers may use their opinion because it can be hard to tell if a politician is actually lying, and they often don’t have enough time to determine the truth.
PolitiFact has had to deal with plenty of accusations of bias and inaccuracy during the last election season. In 2012, legislators from across the aisle as well as pundits attacked several of PolitiFact’s truth-o-meter articles. For the most part the website has stayed the course and continued to pass judgment in the face of criticism. However, Adair revealed in an interview that in response to complaints of bias he and his team made a new set of questions to ask when assigning a Truth-o-Meter score that led to more accuracy. For every judgment they make, three or four editors look at the facts surrounding the statement as well as how they have ruled on other statements to make a Truth-o-Meter determination. He also lets reporters listen in on how the Truth-o-Meter decisions are made. By listening and responding to criticisms, PolitiFact is getting fewer judgments wrong and quieting criticism, albeit only a little.
The nature of PolitiFact’s work means they are always going to come under fire for making judgments. According to its founder, the website exists to be a resource that helps people make decisions. Its rise in popularity and awards show that fact checking is probably here to stay, especially with confusing political commercials and increasingly ominous stump speeches from candidates. In an interview Adair gave before leaving PolitiFact to teach at Duke University, he discussed expanding to different countries, more newspapers and connecting PolitiFact with new technology. One such idea was using voice recognition technology to allow a PolitiFact truth-o-meter to appear on screen if a politician said a phrase that had already been fact-checked. While the business model is working great, Adair claims that he never wanted to separate from the St. Petersburg/ Tampa Times. Another recent addition to PolitiFact is PunditFact, which checks the statements of news personalities. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert frequently make fun of the ridiculous statements that news anchors sometimes make, so this expansion should help enhance PolitiFact’s image as an alternative to partisan punditry and sound-bite news coverage.
If the brand continues to do well, it can expand to more newspapers and countries, but it still doesn’t show potential for bringing in large amounts of revenue. Furthermore, its database is accessible to the public, so a non-subscriber could use what PolitiFact said about a candidate in their reporting. Although Adair seems to be satisfied with the progress PolitiFact has made, it has the potential to become more prominent and more lucrative if they take further steps to monetize their content. Some potential ideas could include looking for a contract to do a weekly or daily show on a news network with someone from the organization, or requiring a subscription fee to access old content. This would deviate from PolitiFact’s stated purpose of being a public resource, and would allow competitors to undercut them. However, if the product is good enough could possibly work.