December 15, 2015

As the U.S. braces itself for yet another in a long series of debates tonight, Spain held its last one on Monday night prior to general elections on Sunday. The contestants were the current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the Partido Popular, and the leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez.

The election is expected to transform Spain’s Parliament, with two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, challenging the traditional parties.

La Sexta, a private channel which also aired the latest debate that was held in the Spanish TV academy, chose to enrich its post-debate coverage with “post-match” fact-checking. While this delayed setting means many of those who viewed the debate will no longer be watching, it was still a useful instrument.

El Objetivo La Sexta

El Objetivo La Sexta

The fact-checking was held in a separate studio from the one where political guests were invited to comment; the physical distance helped separate the spin from the more fact-driven analysis. La Sexta relied on its tried and tested “Pruebas de Verificación” format, which was integrated by the comments of guest experts.

Besides flagging misleading claims by each of the candidates, the fact-checking was useful to show that even when they are not manipulating figures, politicians will use the data that best serves their argument.

So it was last night with employment figures. Sánchez claimed that 90% of all jobs were temporary, while Rajoy argued that 75% were permanent. The first was speaking of new contracts, while the second of all jobs. While this may have been clear to more expert viewers, it wasn’t necessarily to the average viewer who heard two entirely contrasting figures about job stability.

Fact-checking debates shouldn’t be aimed just at calling politicians out on their lies or slip-ups; though that is both central and appropriate. In highly adversarial political environments, it is easy to boil a fact-check down to “s/he was lying.” Yet because viewers are expecting a rating, they will pay greater attention to the facts being presented.

Before getting to the rating, fact-checking post-debate provides a chance to highlight the nuances of numbers that are central to the political discussion in the country. Few other moments in election coverage are like that. In this case, fact-checkers’ most important contribution to democratic discourse is explanation, rather than the adjudication.

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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

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