December 2, 2015

What makes fact-checking work on TV? How is it different from fact-checking for an online or print audience? This article is the first of a series of deep dives into how televisions across the world research and produce fact checks.

External fact-checking gained a new lease on life about a decade ago. This was in good part thanks to the internet, which reduced the time and cost required to research and disseminate fact checks independently. According to Mark Stencel, co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, “approximately half of the active organizations that we are tracking in our fact-checking database are independent, primarily digital news operations; the other half are tied to print or broadcast news organizations, but many of them publish more online than they do in print or on-air.”

Nonetheless, many fact-checkers are drawn to television, with its particular form of storytelling and the large audiences it can reach. It is no coincidence that Brooks Jackson, founder of and a doyen of external fact-checking, experimented with fact checks of political ads on CNN in the 1990s. More recently, fact-checking as a regular stand-alone segment has featured on TV channels across the world such as Australia’s ABC, Korea’s JTBC, Britain’s Channel 4 and Italy’s Rai 2.

“Pruebas de Verificación” is the fact-checking segment in the show “El Objetivo”, which airs Sunday evenings on Spanish private broadcaster La Sexta. El Objetivo concentrates on politics and economics and is hosted by Ana Pastor, a popular journalist known for her pull-no-punches interviewing approach. Pastor previously presented “Desayunos” on Spanish public broadcaster TVE. According to Reporters Without Borders, TVE let Pastor go despite strong ratings following political pressure from the Conservative government. Pastor tweeted at the time that she had been fired for doing her job while TVE claimed she turned down an offer from the new management.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a blunt host would make fact-checking a key aspect of her latest show, which launched in June 2013.

According to Ramon Salaverría, director of the Center for Internet Studies and Digital Life at the University of Navarra, “El Objetivo is the most salient example of fact-checking journalism in Spain,” even as “little by little, fact-checking journalism is gaining traction in the country,” mainly online.

During the “Pruebas”, Natalia Hernández, head of fact-checking at El Objetivo, joins Pastor in the studio. The typical segment sees the two interact and provide context to a claim shown on video, before Hernández walks the audience through the fact check. The video below is an example of their work. In this case, it was Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who was being scrutinized, for a – politically charged, in the context of the secessionist movement in Catalonia – claim that Spain is the oldest country in Europe.

The research is clearly thorough, but the outstanding part is the production. In seven minutes, the Prueba deploys several different techniques for different goals: the video montage of all the times Rajoy made the same claim conveys a strongly held belief – or a key talking point; the overlay graphics help the viewers follow a complicated story; the contribution of experts provides gravity, while the cartoon-like animations lighten the mood. The result is a highly watchable, even entertaining, clip.

Through email and Skype, I communicated with Hernández and two more producers at the show, Itziar Bernaola and Juan Moreno, to get more background on how El Objetivo pieces together its Pruebas.

Finding and choosing claims to fact-check
The first step is obviously finding the claims to fact check. Romero told me “a lot of work goes on before we decide what to actually fact-check.”

Every day the team prepares an agenda with the key press conferences, interviews, parliamentary hearings, etc. Four people monitor these events transcribing the fact-checkable claims, which are evaluated by a “first filter” of three or four fact-checkers, including Hernández, who conduct preliminary research. Claims that pass the first round go through a “second filter” which includes Pastor. In total, about ten people are involved in the fact-checking process from beginning to end.

The final choice is also influenced by the newsiness of the claim and whether it is repeated often. The team jumps on claims that are clearly contradictory: “if we find a topic in which different politicians give different data… that’s a must!” The juxtaposition of opposing claims on the same indicator plays well to the strengths of the medium, as the following fact check, in which Rajoy and opposition leader Pedro Sánchez made diametrically opposed claims, shows:

Fact-checking the claim
The fact-checking itself doesn’t differ particularly from the standard researching process conducted by other media. The journalists themselves do much of the researching, while relying on a list of go-to experts that “keeps growing week after week,” and originate “mostly from academia.”

Producing and going on air
A key aspect behind the segment’s efficacy is the early involvement of the graphics team. This forces the researchers to prepare the script in the form most suited to TV rendition from the very start, rather than adapt it in a second moment.

Besides clear graphics, a trademark sign of the Pruebas are montages of oft-repeated claims. In a clip from last year, this was used to almost comical effect:

As Sunday approaches, fact-checks prepared earlier in the week can become less relevant to the specific moment of the news cycle. To deal with this, the team has become faster in its research and keeps people on duty on weekends. With time, they have found that the topic of an old unaired fact check suddenly becomes newsworthy again. Nonetheless, complete relevance to the latest news is not paramount for a fact check to air. “Editors are flexible,” aware that fact checks require more time to be produced than other pieces.

The fact checks were originally presented by Pastor herself, but the host and the production team ultimately opted to put Hernández on camera as “it would be more credible for the public to have somebody from our fact-checking team do it”. 

The impact
At least 1.5 million tune every Sunday to follow El Objetivo, and about as many follow Pastor on Twitter.  According to the minute-to-minute ratings the production team has, the fact-checking “always goes the same or better than the average of the show.”

If the reach is very broad, the number of corrections that explicitly followed a fact check is for now relatively limited – an exception being Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who corrected himself publicly on Twitter in uncompromising terms. Iglesias was also involved in a fact check El Objetivo had to correct. “It’s important to be sincere with the audience,” so the correction was done in a similar format in the following episode, with an additional expert speaking from the studio.

Other times the El Objetivo team notices politicians dropping a statement they fact-checked after months of repeating it incorrectly. “Is this because of our fact checks? We don’t know,” they say, adding, “Our focus is the audience.”

Fact-checking on TV: advantages and drawbacks
I asked the El Objetivo team what they thought were the strengths and weaknesses of fact-checking on TV; their answer deserves to be quoted in full:

TV narrative is better at showing things: you can tell in a web piece how somebody has been repeating a false claim for years or expose how many different members of a party repeat the exact same false claim, but TV narrative can make this especially fun and powerful. The disadvantages are related to the fact that TV forces you to simplify your message. Also, fact-checking is a format that invites the public to dig in the content, to go further, the web is perfect for this thanks to hypertext.

With Spain’s general elections in late December, Pastor will be jointly moderating the debate among four prime ministerial hopefuls. Will the debate be fact-checked live, I asked the El Objetivo team? “We’re definitely going to try!”

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

More News

Back to News