PolitiFact

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Yes, Virginia, it is OK for a writer to play with the form

As a boy, my favorite story genre was the cowboy movie.  As I got a little older, I left Hopalong Cassidy behind in favor of parodies of cowboy movies, the kind of thing Mad magazine produced or Mel Brooks perfected in Blazing Saddles.

No doubt, good writers learn how to fulfill the requirements of a particular writing form, whether it’s the inverted pyramid or the three-act play. One sign of mastery is the ability to parody. In order to ridicule something well, you need to discover its actual elements. That’s a lesson I learned from poet Donald Hall and his 1973 textbook Writing Well.

He includes an example of journalist Oliver Jensen making fun of the way President Eisenhower talked.  First Jensen must learn the quirks of Ike’s awkward rhetoric. Then he applies it to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln may have said: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….” Ike’s version might have been, “I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a government set-up here in this country….”

Last year at this time, it was my turn. What I wrote wasn’t meant as a parody of Politifact, but as a jocular manipulation of the form of journalistic fact-checking these days. I built it on this Christmas question: What if Virginia had asked an editor today if Santa Claus was real?

I hope you enjoy this reprise of last year’s experiment in the Tampa Bay Times.

Santa Claus opening a stack of letters, 1880s. Hand-colored woodcut of a Thomas Nast illustration (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Santa Claus opening a stack of letters, 1880s. Hand-colored woodcut of a Thomas Nast illustration (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Good reporters have always checked things out. Arguably the most famous case of fact-checking — long before the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact lit its first pants on fire — goes back to Sept. 21, 1897. It appeared in an unsigned editorial in the New York Sun, titled "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." The author was Francis Pharcellus Church, a former Civil War correspondent, who has earned a place as a patron saint of fact-checking.

His editorial — described as "the most copied" in newspaper history — responded to a query from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. The daughter of a medical doctor on New York’s Upper West Side, Virginia wrote:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.

Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.

Papa says, "If you see it in THE SUN it’s so."

Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia grew up to become a well-respected educator. She died in 1971. Her story and the editorial it inspired have become part of Americana, as evidenced by their retelling in a children’s book, television drama, a classical music cantata, an animated TV special, a made-for-TV movie, a holiday musical and much more.

While I can cite no empirical evidence, it is possible that the most quoted sentence in the history of newspapers is the one that begins this paragraph:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as it there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Which leads us to the following question: What would have happened if Virginia had lived in our time? What if she had submitted her question to the editors of the Tampa Bay Times? Armed with the fact-checking machinery of 2013, how would the editorialists have replied?

I don’t work for PolitiFact, folks. Their realm is the dreary world of politics. This essay has a higher calling: to examine one of the most powerful popular stories ever told, and to test the common claims about Santa Claus against the available or imaginable evidence. Up, up and away:

Claim #1: Because you can’t see the "real" Santa, he must not exist.

Francis Church disposed of this argument in 1897: "Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world." But that is a fanciful argument. How about one from science? In 1964 a physicist named Peter Higgs tried to solve one of the world’s most puzzling questions: Where does all matter come from? He posited the existence of an invisible subatomic particle that became known as the Higgs boson. It took almost a half-century but scientists using supercolliders were finally able to identify the famous "God particle," not from its visual presence but from its effects. Higgs just won a Nobel Prize. Even if you cannot see Santa, you can see his effects.

We rate this claim: False.

Claim #2: Santa Claus is a fat white guy.

The claim leans on artistic representations of the character known variously as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and St. Nick. We did a Google image search on these names, and it’s clear that the figure is consistently portrayed as "portly." There are no thin Santas. On the other hand, there are pictures in which he appears almost morbidly obese. While some might see these as a reflection of seasonal plenty, others may detect a projection of America’s horrible dietary habits. In some images, Santa has a big belly, but in others he looks more like an offensive lineman dressed against the cold in a bulky red suit. As for Santa’s being white, we don’t need to rely on what Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly says, we need only go back to the earliest origins of Santa — St. Nicholas of Bari — who was born in what is now Turkey. He most likely had a swarthy complexion. And we have evidence that Santa has a kind of benevolent chameleon quality that allows him to appear in the ethnicity of the children he is serving.

We rate this claim as: Half True.

Claim #3: Santa lives at the North Pole.

Several countries claim an official residence for Santa. The only common element for these conflicting claims is an icy northern domain, which lends credence to the North Pole, where these various land masses converge. Much weight must be given to the activities of the North American Air Defense Command, which has tracked Santa’s Christmas Eve travels since 1958. Canada has even designated a postal code for the North Pole: H0H 0H0, a reference to SC’s most famous and oft-repeated saying. We have no evidence to back the claim that Mr. Claus is concerned by the shrinkage of the polar ice cap due to global warming.

We rate this claim: True.

Claim #4: Santa comes down the chimney.

Of all the myths surrounding Santa and his activities, this one is the most problematic, especially for Floridians, where chimneys are the exception rather than the rule. It is well-accepted that many religious traditions derive their origins from pagan rituals, and this may be one of them. In stories about the Norse gods, Odin was said to enter homes during celebrations of the solstice down chimneys and through other apertures.

Given Santa’s girth, the narrow shaft of chimneys, the bulk of presents, and the obvious dangers of descending backwards into flames, we rate this claim: Pants on Fire.

Claim #5: The cult of Santa commercializes the feast, diverting attention from what should be its true religious meaning.

This turns out to be an antique claim, first promulgated by Puritans and Calvinists, who disapproved of the buoyant joy associated with the Christmas holiday in general. But it was that same Puritan ethic that created the foundations for a free-market economy, one that depends, in large measure, upon how much money consumers spend around the holidays. That said, there is ample evidence that all the attention on gift-giving can degenerate into selfish gift-wanting. For every child who exults on getting a bike, there is another disappointed in not getting a BB gun (yes, you will shoot your eye out, kid). Why are so many people depressed around the holidays? It may be because the simpler, more humble expressions of the season have been lost.

We rate this claim: Half True.

Claim #6: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

We’ll leave the last words to Francis Church: "No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."

We rate this claim: Mostly True. Read more

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3 lessons from the G20 Summit ‘Factcheckathon’

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Earlier this week, nine fact-checking websites joined forces to fact-check the statements made by world leaders during the G20 summit in Australia. Glenn Kessler wrote about the results in The Washington Post. I coordinated this first factcheckathon with Cristina Tardàguila from O Globo and took home three important lessons.

  1. Global fact-checking experiments can yield useful results for comparative politics
    Our fact-checking network caught three of the eight world leaders we were monitoring saying essentially the same thing: Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, Barack Obama of the USA and Matteo Renzi of Italy all said something along the lines of “large amounts of jobs were created under my government” – and then proceeded to inflate their records. What was interesting was not so much that politicians chose to dabble with figures, but that they did so in such a similar manner. While the rhetoric and imagery deployed by politicians may vary greatly across countries, facts are facts everywhere.

    A fact-driven analysis of speeches made by global leaders in the same forum opens up new avenues to compare political discourse internationally. Do elected politicians fiddle with facts in ways different from non-elected ones? Are there relevant cultural differences? This basic experiment produced a few valuable insights; a more rigorous one could provide a unique perspective by which to analyse international political discourse.

  2. The fact-checking whole can be greater than the sum of its parts
    The factcheckathon was a small, if practical, output of a larger phenomenon. Independent fact-checking is growing across the globe. The nascent movement – largely inspired by Factcheck.org and PolitiFact, and energetically led by the former’s creator Bill Adair – met for its first “global summit” in London this June. But the fact-checking movement needs to grow much bigger, and making that happen will require innovations. Fortunately, greater collaboration should catalyse this innovation process.

    This was clear in a recent fact-checking conference in Buenos Aires, where I saw some impressive efforts in data visualization, and the open-source “DatoChq” platform the Argentinian site Chequeado has built to receive datasets live via Twitter. At Pagella Politica, the fact-checking site I edit, we are developing a “fact-checkers’ Google” aimed at giving citizens structured and user-friendly access to certified data. Computer scientists and journalism professors from Duke, Stanford and the University of Texas at Arlington are looking at ways to automatize certain steps of fact-checking. These experiments may not yield revolutions; but every day fact-checkers sift through an ocean of data with a teaspoon – and the ocean is only getting larger. Given fact-checkers’ shared methodologies, a breakthrough in one country would be rapidly transferrable.

    A lot of work remains to be done. This article published recently by The Guardianhas been haunting me. It shows the distance – often enormous – between public perception and reality on key indicators such as the unemployment level or the immigrant population. Factcheckathons and other efforts aimed at sharing fact-checks internationally can have an impact in defusing stereotypes across countries.

  3. Facts can be fun
    My colleague Peter Cunliffe-Jones of Africa Check has quipped that a world meeting of fact-checkers sounds as riveting as an International Congress of Actuaries. So fact-checking doesn’t set the heart racing; but it doesn’t need to be dull either.

    Pagella Politica submitted two fact-checks to the G20 factcheckathon. The first one concerned the jobs created during Prime Minister Renzi’s government. The second one verified Mr Renzi’s claims that there were more Sim cards than humans worldwide; and more kangaroos than humans in Australia. While everyone (half-heartedly) recognized the greater relevance of the first, I could see the joy with which colleagues from the US, Brazil and elsewhere lapped up the second one (you can read about it in Italian here).

    This is not meant to showcase my Prime Minister’s penchant for cutesy comparisons. It is supposed to show that facts can be fun. What is more, they translate well. There is space for more fact-driven analysis of international summits, and this week has shown that fact-checking websites are up for the challenge.

The experiment was not perfect. For one, our results came out more than 48 hours after the summit was over; that is eons in the current live-news cycle. Moreover, our sample of fact-checkable statements was quite small. Nevertheless, a rough template was set for a more structured experiment in the future. Watch this space.

Alexios Mantzarlis is the CEO and editor of Italian fact-checking site Pagella Politica Read more

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Creating new forms of journalism that put readers in charge

It’s been 20 years since the Internet began to disrupt journalism. It has turned our business upside down, but it’s also given us a new canvas to invent different ways of presenting information. It’s time to start reimagining the news story.

Last week, four of us gathered in a windowless conference room in New York to explore what we can do to nudge things along.

The participants were the creators of three projects that rely on new forms:

  • Laura and Chris Amico, the founders of Homicide Watch, the highly acclaimed reporting venture that tracks homicide victims and suspects in Washington, Chicago and Trenton, N.J.


All three projects use a structured approach to present content in different ways. The animated diagrams of Connected China show you the family and government relationships that determine who has clout in that country; the lists and maps of Homicide Watch show who has been killed and where; the PolitiFact report cards reveal which politicians have earned the most Pants on Fires.

Homicide Watch, Connected China and PolitiFact are known as structured journalism because the articles contain fields of information that can be sorted and tallied. They provide readers with many ways to explore the content, both through individual articles and the data the articles create. Structured journalism puts the reader in charge.

“It’s a way of reporting that builds a comprehensive reporter’s notebook and then opens that notebook up to the public,” said Laura Amico. “There is no ‘old news’ in structured journalism, there is cumulative news. It is reporting that increases in value over time.”

There are a few other ventures that are experimenting with similar new forms, such as Circa, the app that atomizes the news into digestible chunks. But by and large, story forms are stuck in the past. We want more news organizations to experiment with structured journalism.

We began our New York meeting by trying to understand why media companies have largely failed to take advantage of the incredible power of the Web and mobile devices. We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:

  • Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.

  • Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.

  • Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.

  • Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.

Chua said editors need to get beyond the idea that “what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

We then turned to the need for evangelism. What can the four of us do to get more news organizations to try innovative story forms?

We agreed to host a mini-conference in September before the Online News Association meeting in Chicago. It will allow us to demonstrate the promise of new story forms for industry leaders and innovators.

In the meantime, we’ll be writing and speaking about the new forms and encouraging organizations to do more experimentation. We invite you to join in these conversations by sharing your projects, ideas and hopes. #structuredjournalism

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, is the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke University and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. Read more

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How PolitiFact gets ready for ‘the Super Bowl for fact-checkers’

The president’s State of the Union address is “the Super Bowl for fact-checkers,” former PolitiFact honcho Bill Adair tells a video crew at his new employer, Duke University.

PolitiFact — which is owned by the Tampa Bay Times, which in turn is owned by Poynter — gets a copy of the speech a few minutes before the U.S. House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms shouts “Mr. Speaker.” Via instant message, PolitiFact editors assign reporters to specific sections of the speech.

The editors then gather in PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” and hand out Truth-o-Meter ratings, Adair says.

Related: YouTube, news sites will livestream the State of the Union | The White House wants to be your second screen for State of the Union address Read more

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New PolitiFact service will fact-check pundits

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PolitiFact will launch a service called PunditFact that will be “dedicated to checking claims by pundits, columnists, bloggers and the hosts and guests of talk shows.”

Poynter — which owns the Tampa Bay Times that operates PolitiFact — is a partner on the project. The Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund are funding it with seed money from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s group craigconnects.

Poynter will analyze “the reach and impact of PunditFact and will hold a conference to discuss the results,” the announcement says. Read more

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Researchers find politicians may fear fact-checkers

In the months before the 2012 election, state legislators in nine states received letters from two political scientists.

“We are writing to let you know about an important research project,” the letters began.

It wasn’t just a letter letting them know about the project — the letters were a core piece of the research, as were the politicians themselves.

Some of the letters informed legislators that PolitiFact had set up shop in their state, and that the researchers were conducting work related to “how elected officials in your state are responding to the presence of this fact-checking organization during this campaign season.” It also told them that, “Politicians who lie put their reputations and careers at risk, but only when those lies are exposed.” Read more

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PolitiFact Ohio gives Rachel Maddow a ‘Pants on Fire!’

PolitiFact Ohio

Rachel Maddow’s claim that Ohio’s budget calls for a “mandatory vaginal probe at the insistence of the state” is not true, PolitiFact’s Ohio outfit says.

“Maddow was referring to a new requirement that women seeking abortions first receive ultrasounds to determine whether a fetal heartbeat is present,” PolitiFact and Plain Dealer reporter Henry J. Gomez writes. Gomez got his hands on the budget, which says “only that an examination shall be performed externally.”

“That puts Maddow’s ‘vaginal probe’ claim about as far as can be from the truth, into the realm of the ridiculous,” Gomez writes. Read more

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Study about PolitiFact — OK to call it a study?

PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair was careful to call a study that claimed his shop “rates Republicans as less trustworthy than Democrats” a “press release” when I asked him for comment about it last week.

“The authors of this press release seem to have counted up a small number of our Truth-O-Meter ratings over a few months, and then drew their own conclusions,” Adair wrote. (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, which owns PolitiFact.) I asked the spokesperson for George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs for a copy of the full study, about which I had indeed received a press release. In return, CMPA spokesperson Kathryn Davis sent me the following tables: Read more

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Fact-checkers, copy editors on why they’ll be affected by Michele Bachmann’s retirement

U.S. Rep Michele Bachmann announced early Wednesday that she would not seek her seat next year, an announcement that will land hard on two constituencies: Fact-checkers and copy editors.

“She was great to cover because she was consistently and unapologetically wrong,” Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler told Poynter in an email. “But others will fill the breach, I am sure!” In a post bidding her adieu, Kessler wrote that Bachmann’s absence “will leave the Capitol a much less interesting place to fact check.” Read more

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Study: PolitiFact finds Republicans ‘less trustworthy than Democrats’

Center for Media and Public Affairs

George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs studied 100 PolitiFact fact-checks during President Obama’s second term. The organization “rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims,” a press release says.

PolitiFact rated 32% of Republican claims as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11% of Democratic claims – a 3 to 1 margin. Conversely, Politifact rated 22% of Democratic claims as “entirely true” compared to 11% of Republican claims – a 2 to 1 margin.

A majority of Democratic statements (54%) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18% of Republican statements. Conversely, a majority of Republican statements (52%) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24% of Democratic statements.

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