How the Election Started a Fact-Checking Content Boom

Today in the shower, I noticed for the first time that Dove Sensitive Skin Nourishing Body Wash is “#1 Dermatologist Recommended.” Really? Which dermatologist(s)? I flipped the bottle around, expecting to find a source for the claim. Nada.

Last month, I wrote a story for The Content Strategist about how brands should fact-check their content to protect their credibility. However, amid the frenzy of the 2016 presidential election, fact-checking is no longer just a safeguard; it’s now a burgeoning source of content in its own right. Audiences hungry for verification drove record traffic to publishers that offered live fact-checking during the first presidential debate.

NPR’s real-time online fact-checking operation dedicated to the first debate “drew 7.4 million page views from more than 6 million users” on September 26 and 27—the publisher’s most web traffic ever over a two-day period.

That Monday, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker received the most unique visitors for a debate in its nine-year history. Glenn Kessler, who runs the lean but prolific research venture with just one colleague, reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee, wrote in an email, “We don’t share specific traffic data, [but] I can say we are hitting new records every month.”

Then there’s the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact, operated by the Tampa Bay Times and its partner news organizations to monitor claims made by American politicians, which crossed more than 2 million pageviews on September 27, marking a single-day record for the site since its 2007 inception, according to its deputy editor, Katie Sanders.

Ahead of the second presidential debate, I spoke to Sanders about how her team prepares for such a big media event, why good fact-checking is confrontational, and what she learned from the response to the first debate.

How does your team prepare to live-check the debates?

On debate night, we hear talking point after talking point that we’ve already debunked or analyzed or approved. It’s in their arsenal. They don’t deviate from the script all that much.

We have our own arsenal of close to 13,000 fact-checks, and a lot of them are from this election cycle, so we have plenty of content to resurface on debate night. We’re well aware that people aren’t tuning into the election for as long as we or other journalists have. So we want to make sure that we’re promoting work we did a few months ago at its most relevant point for people trying to decide who their vote should go to.

How do you staff your operation?

We’re owned and operated under the Tampa Bay Times umbrella. Half of our PolitiFact staff works at a D.C. bureau owned by the Times. The other half works in St. Petersburg at Times headquarters, and we have a few other reporters pitching in remotely from home. We hired an immigration fact-checker just for 2016 through a campaign on Beacon Reader, a crowdfunding site for journalism. She works from Rhode Island, and a couple other reporters also work remotely.

What makes a good fact-checker, in your opinion?

A good fact-checker has experience as a journalist, because checking facts is essential to journalists in writing their own stories. What we do is a bit more confrontational in holding politicians accountable to the messages they tell voters. With Truth-o-Meter, we tell voters how true politicians’ statements are.

How do the campaigns react to your work?

We contact them every day for fact-checks, not just on debate night, so they’re used to our presence. That doesn’t mean they always respond. Their responses and the way we deal with them run the gamut. We approach them for every fact-check to allow them to give us any evidence they think we should consider. Or if a talking point is derived from a certain report, we want to know where it’s coming from. Usually if a candidate is on stable ground, they’ll send us the report where it’s cited. But sometimes, if the campaign doesn’t know where the candidate got it, they might not respond.

We do our own independent research by checking other sources across the political spectrum and non-partisan sources. As journalists, we also interview subject matter experts before we write reports and come up with conclusions.

On debate night, that process is really accelerated. We try to stick with verifying things in the vast archive of information we’ve already checked, and we do give campaigns the chance to weigh in. Sometimes they’ll highlight fact-checks that paint the other candidate as a liar. They’ll conveniently leave out any correction of them. We see our work used that way, but we can’t control that. We’re not writing for them. We’re writing for the voters.

Did you learn anything from the September 26 debate to inform your future work?

Things went pretty well, and we’ll keep working with mostly the same staff. Our main writers write one to three fact-checks during a debate, and we have one editor who assigns those statements to research. My job is to help coordinate assignments and edit once the debate is over. I also work with TV and broadcast partners that want fact-checks they can put on the air by 11 p.m. We also have people checking our quotes against the debate transcript.

We didn’t come up with this plan just for last week. We came up with it through 20-something primary-season debates and convention live coverage. Live coverage is a signature of what we do, and we get better and better at it with each event.

What’s the debate-day schedule at PolitiFact?

We tell people to be in their positions by 6 p.m. That gives them time to have some dinner and get the caffeine going. Some people adjust their sleep schedules to be sharper until early morning. We have a conference call at 7 p.m. to review our plan once again and go over any surprising elements people should know about. Then we settle in and prepare. That could mean designing tweets or Facebook posts, or looking into something a candidate may have said a day earlier that might come up in the debate.

Does fact-checking content lend itself to other social media outlets?

Michelle Ye Hee Lee at The Washington Post has been using Snapchat, but we haven’t yet. I personally like Snapchat and find it kooky and fun, but we haven’t explored it as much as we could.

We’re limited by the fact our staff works on PolitiFact part-time. At the end of the day, we don’t want to spend too much time on something that may not be a source of revenue. Facebook definitely drives a lot of our traffic and is worth putting a lot of effort into. We have an Instagram account, but no one posts to it.

We’ll just power through with what we’re doing for the next few weeks. We’re so stretched with the presidential and V.P. debates, along with the Florida senate and in our network of 18 state partners where we’re really involved. We try to help them cover their own races as best as we can on top of national stuff, so it’s been crazy.

On your site’s “Who Pays for PolitiFact?” page, I see grants and foundations mentioned. How does funding work?

Without the [Tampa Bay] Times, we would not have been able to grow as we have. That said, we’re trying to move in the direction of finding revenue from big foundations that have an interest in democracy and truth in politics. Grant-writing and finding people who believe in our mission are really important. It’s hard to build as a startup, but I see new online [journalism] groups like Reboot Illinois and our partner Billy Penn in Pennsylvania making it work.

We’ve never asked readers to pay for access to our regular content, but we’ve done two crowd-funding drives. In 2015, we raised around $20,000 on Kickstarter with the goal of live-annotating the State of the Union. In doing that, we wanted to add a new product to fact-checking that we thought people would be excited about.

We’ve definitely had our work amplified by crowdfunding, but we couldn’t exist solely on it. Grants and our TV partnership with NBC have been really helpful this year to do our work.

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