Cranking up the Truth-O-Meter: Giving a boost to Truth in Politics

January 13, 2016

As PoltiFact’s Angie Holan’s December 2015 op-ed in The New York Times, explains, even in the midst of a campaign season full of falsehoods and misstatements, she sees reason for optimism about the efficacy of fact-checking work:

“Some politicians have responded to fact-checking journalism by vetting their prepared comments more carefully and giving their campaign ads extra scrutiny… Accurate information is becoming more available and easier for voters to find… Today’s TV journalists—anchors like Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper and George Stephanopoulos—have picked up the torch of fact-checking and now grill candidates on issues of accuracy during live interviews… In fact, journalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event.”

We do too, and in this context, Democracy Fund is pleased to announce our support (via a grant to The Times Publishing Company) for PolitiFact, an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on bringing the public the truth in politics. PolitiFact’s staff of independent reporters and editors fact-check statements from the White House, the president, cabinet secretaries, Congress, state legislators, governors, mayors, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress, and anyone else who speaks up in American politics—rating their claims for accuracy on their “Truth-O-Meter.” Every fact-check includes analysis of the claim, an explanation of reasoning, and a list of links to sources. A well established and esteemed fact-checking team now led by Angie Holan, won the Pulitzer Prize for its fact-checking of the presidential election in 2008.

PolitiFact is a division of The Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, which is published by the Times Publishing Company, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a 501(c)(3) journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida. Democracy Fund has previously supported PunditFact, a project that fact-checks talking heads and opinion leaders, through funding from the Poynter Institute. We decided to provide additional dollars because we see this as an invaluable service for democratic accountability. The support we’re providing will allow PolitiFact to grow its franchise, extending factchecking across states during 2016 and subsequently.

PolitiFact has already been expanding its reach across the country, establishing editions in 15 states already (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin). This growth is great to see, and we hope it will continue.

Our Commitment to Editorial Independence

As part of this announcement of our support, we want to underscore that the Democracy Fund will not have any knowledge of the claims being checked, nor will we have any discussions with PolitiFact on editorial questions whatsoever.

Prior to finalizing the grant, we committed that Democracy Fund staff will not discuss with PolitiFact staff the editorial content of factchecks, nor will we discuss ratings of future factchecks, or future subjects of factchecks. At the same time, PolitiFact committed not to share any factchecks it is researching with Democracy Fund staff prior to publication.

We wanted to share this commitment as a part of our ongoing efforts to be transparent about the work we do and our approach. Editorial independence has always been crucial to journalism and democracy and as the field enters a new era where it seems likely funding will come from a range of sources, we need to ensure that it is not compromised.

The Democracy Fund is committed to fighting deception and disinformation that prevents voters from making informed decisions at the ballot box. PolitiFact and its state-level affiliates will hold individuals and organizations accountable for the exaggerations and falsehoods that are often found in political speech. We expect their work will continue to demonstrate the valuable role fact-checking can play in holding politicians, pundits and policy advocates accountable, and will influence other media organizations to adopt similar practices, and we are delighted to support them in this endeavor.