Media fact-checking more aggressive under Trump

2017-02-08 14:47
Kellyanne Conway greets former vice president Dan Quayle during President Donald Trump’s inauguration. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

Kellyanne Conway greets former vice president Dan Quayle during President Donald Trump’s inauguration. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

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New York - These days of alternative facts, phantom terrorist attacks and fake news are changing the way news organisations do their jobs.

Media outlets are more aggressively fact-checking political statements - a function often pushed into the background when campaigns end - finding innovative new formats and seeing keen interest among consumers. An administration that views that the press as the opposition is reinvigorating it.

Someday, presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts" on NBC's Meet the Press may be cited as a galvanising moment for journalism.

"We're writing about a president who makes quite a number of misstatements," said Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post reporter whose regular fact checks award "Pinocchios" based on the magnitude and brazenness of false claims. "This has increased our workload and increased the level of interest in fact-checking."

The number of unique visitors to Kessler's web page in January was 50% higher than in October, its previous busiest month, and 15 times greater than in January 2013, he said.

The Associated Press routinely publishes AP Fact Checks on political discourse.

Last week, the AP premiered an aggregation of disputed political statements under the headline, "A week's supply of baloney."

A separate fact check on Conway's false claim of a Bowling Green "massacre" on Thursday was the most-read story on the APNews.com website on Friday. Similarly, on Monday, readers spent more time with a story examining President Donald Trump's claim about the media underplaying incidents of terrorism than they did with any other news item that day.

"People are really paying close attention to the news and they want a tough-minded journalist to ... give them an impartial report about whether a story is true, false or somewhere in between," said John Daniszewski, the AP's vice president for standards.

The New York Times also does regular fact-checking: It took a microscope on Tuesday to Trump's claims about his immigration order and titled an earlier story: "White House pushes 'alternative facts'. Here are the real ones." An NPR team annotates claims made during speeches or debates. CNN succinctly corrects political misstatements through onscreen graphics.

After reporting President Donald Trump's claim about under-reported terror attacks, anchor Scott Pelley said on the CBS Evening News on Monday that "it has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality".

It remains to be seen how much impact these efforts have on public opinion. If you don't believe stories in mainstream media anyway, are fact checks believable?

Duke University Professor Bill Adair, who helped start the PolitiFact.com website, noted the growth of fact-checking during the autumn campaign and, in a column printed on Election Day, challenged journalists to keep it up. Since then, "we've seen tremendous fact-checking by national news organisations in a period when they would not typically do it," he said.

Examining the truth of political statements is relatively new, first applied nationally to campaign ads in 1992, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute. FactCheck.org, Snopes.com and PolitiFact, with its "pants on fire" designation for egregious lies, do it regularly.

"Given the traction this is getting, I do not see this abating," Rosenstiel said. "To the contrary, I see people who do this work saying, 'How do we do this in a more complete way?'"

None of the ideas NPR tried clicked like its annotation feature, rolled out during last year's campaign. Up to two dozen journalists and producers worked on debate nights, for example, adding links to transcripts and allowing website visitors to judge the accuracy of statements.

The process is constantly being refined, said Beth Donovan, senior Washington editor. Others are following: Adair said Duke is experimenting with a "pop-up" feature that allows real-time fact-checking.

"This was always a key part of our job, but it's more central now," said Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president for news and editorial director. "In the old days, we'd write a story and somewhere in the story we might say, 'Oh, by the way, he said this but it isn't true.' Now ... it is in a sense the story itself."

Kessler said the Washington Post is looking to add video to its fact-checking unit. The Times is looking into creating its own fact-checking unit, said Matt Purdy, deputy managing editor for news and investigations. Times ads for online subscriptions urge people to "give the truth". 

The AP is involved in another aspect of fact-checking, working with Facebook to flag dubious stories shared on the popular social media platform.

Fact-checking isn't immune to persistent political efforts to undermine the authority of mainstream journalists, however. Knocking down Trump administration claims may even make his supporters more determined. "What we think is debunking Donald Trump turns out to be supporting Donald Trump," media critic Michael Wolff said on CNN last weekend.

Don't forget: the presidential candidate judged to have the biggest problem with the truth won.

"Are we in a post fact-check world?" Rosenstiel wondered. "There's a difference between facts and knowledge. I can tell you your facts are wrong, but not change your belief."

The very phrase "fact-checking" was considered too toxic when Dallas' WFAA-TV named its clever new "Verify" segment. In the periodic stories, reporter David Schechter takes viewers on fact-finding missions. For instance, a viewer who supported Trump's plan to build a wall along the Mexican border was taken to the border to see what it was like.

Schechter discovered that challenging assumptions doesn't necessarily change views.

The polarisation just makes the effort more important, journalists say.

"We don't tell you how to vote," Oreskes said. "We give you the material to think about who to vote for."

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