Washington Post expands fact-checking project — and not just to movie trailers

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Leonardo DiCaprio are getting the same fact-checking treatment thanks to the latest evolution of The Washington Post’s Truth Teller project.

The actor and the senator each figure prominently in new videos produced by Truth Teller, which takes video of someone (usually a politician) speaking and annotates their statements with fact checks from the Post and other sources. It’s Pop-Up Video meets PolitiFact.

Here, for example, is the Cruz video released this week:

This week the Post announced a partnership with The Texas Tribune that resulted in the above video. They also announced a project to check “based on a true story” film trailers, which is why DiCaprio is suddenly having his performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” fact-checked.

Look out, Leo. The fact-checkers are coming. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures, Mary Cybulsk, file)

Truth Teller was given legs a year and a half ago thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. They initially needed to build a prototype to show what was possible.

“We built the prototype in three months and it was an experiment,” said Cory Haik, the Post’s executive producer and senior editor for digital. “We built a prototype that works. It could take video and turn it into text or a transcript; then we built an algorithm that could find a claim within that text; and then we built a database that could check against that clam.”

Truth Teller is today well into beta, having been tested in last fall’s gubernatorial race in Virginia. It’s enabled in part thanks to the fact-checking work being done at The Fact Checker, a longstanding Post feature run by Glenn Kessler.

Haik said Truth Teller has become more visible to readers in the Post’s website, and the number of reporters checking facts and loading them into the database is growing, helping add to the work Kessler does.

“We’ve made it more public facing in various places on our site, and had our team of checkers doing their work and really proving their case,” she said.

Post senior politics editor Steve Ginsberg, who co-founded the project with Haik, said Truth Teller will be used in this year’s House and gubernatorial races that fall into the Post’s local coverage areas.

The partnership with the Texas Tribune also means Truth Teller is spreading to other news organizations.

“We provide TruthTeller and they provide the video and the facts,” Ginsberg said of the partnership.

“The reaction has been fantastic,” said Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw, in an email, when I asked about how the Cruz video went over. “We saw great buzz on social media and got several notes about what an innovative feature it was. Folks were quickly asking us who was next in line to get the Truth Teller treatment. “

She said it’s a good fit for their publication, as one of their priorities for the 2014 election season is to livestream the gubernatorial candidates while they’re out on the trail.

“We’ll have a wide range of stump speeches to choose from,” Ramshaw said.

Structuring Fact Checks

One benefit of the partnership for the Post, along with helping get more exposure for their tool, is that Tribune journalists are now helping grow the fact-check database by loading in new items.

Ramshaw said that to do the Cruz video “our reporter Aman Batheja uploaded a series of fact checks into the Post’s content management system. They got it loaded in and flipped it back to us by way of an embed code, which we promptly threw into a story shell on our site.”

The database, which is a modified installation of WordPress, is today home to close to a few hundred fact checks, according to the paper, making it one of the largest databases of this kind. (PolitiFact — which is owned by the Tampa Bay Times, which in turn is owned by Poynter — has a very big database.)

A database of checked facts sounds very pedestrian, but it’s actually a core requirement to helping fact-checking spread to new forms and venues. With a database of fact checks, you can utilize them in any number of applications. Truth Teller is just one example of what can be done. Dan Schulz’s TruthGoggles initiative is another. (Schulz did some initial consulting for the Post on Truth Teller.)

“It’s sort of organic how it happened — we didn’t set out thinking, ‘Let’s structure all fact-checking into a giant database and then create multiple uses or instances,’ ” Ginsberg said. “But as we built it with our smart developers and digital journalists and designers we thought about the best way to approach it.”

Haik said getting the fact checks structured is “the hardest part,” but it’s what makes everything else possible.

Fact-Checking Goes Hollywood

The goal all along, according to Ginsberg, has been to “make Truth Teller for the masses.” That’s the genesis of the idea to take the app out of the political realm and apply it to film trailers.

“We were trying to think of something a little broad-based than politics and that is at the core of what Americans are looking at,” Ginsberg said. “We realized a lot of movies are based on real life, and they’re not just real-life stories but also Washington stories about politics or scandal. It seemed like a natural fit for us.”

The first trailer that Kessler checked was “The Wolf of Wall Street”:

“When you see a movie and know it’s based on real life, the first question you ask when it comes out is, ‘How much of that was real?’ ” Ginsberg said.

It’s about trying to “meet the user where they are [and in] what they watch … we can layer journalism over non-journalism like move trailers,” Haik said.

So far this week the trailers have been among the top Post videos watched, according to Haik.

She said key priorities for this year are to work with other news organizations to enable them to use Truth Teller, and to test other ways to apply the product beyond politics. (Want to use Truth Teller at your organization? Haik wants to talk to you.)

Beyond that, meaning closer to 2016, the team wants to enable people to capture video on their phones and submit it so it can get the Truth Teller treatment.

I also asked the inevitable question that comes with any Post initiative these days: Does Jeff Bezos know about the project, and what does he think?

“We have shown all of the top digital initiatives to those teams and everyone has been very supportive, and we feel good about that,” was Haik’s very cautious reply.

Correction: This post said that Steve Ginsberg came up with the original idea for Truth Teller. In fact, Ginsberg and Haik co-founded the project.

Related Training: Getting it Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age

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