PolitiFact and NBC News announced on Sunday a broad partnership to “fact-check the 2016 election.” Earlier this year, CNN’s “State of the Union” also turned to a political fact-checker, Factcheck.org, seeking additional content for its 2016 coverage.
PolitiFact will be fact-checking politicians and journalists on “Meet the Press,” either by preparing the content for the host, Chuck Todd, or presenting the fact checks directly on air. The Florida-based organization will also work with NBC reporters across the country to produce exclusive fact checks relevant to the particular moment in the news cycle. (Disclaimer: PolitiFact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times, whose parent company is owned by Poynter.)
There are three reasons I find this partnership worth following:
1. The money
PolitiFact and NBC News wouldn’t disclose what the deal was worth financially. However, Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact, told me it will cover the costs associated with having a staff of three working on weekends and producing dozens of additional fact checks throughout the year.
Regardless of the dollar amount, the deal hints at the potential for a new business model for fact-checking as a service. Rather than running fact-checking internally, media groups may increasingly turn to specialized fact-checkers, paying for the expertise and reputation they can provide. News organizations would hire outside fact-checkers in much the same way they hire outside developers for their websites. This is not an entirely novel development, of course. But globally, many fact-checking organizations still rely predominantly on grant-giving organizations; how the PolitiFact/NBC partnership pans out could therefore inspire or deter many others around the globe.
2. The reach (and challenges) of television
While political fact-checkers in the U.S. have strong followings on social media and good traffic, their audiences remain relatively niche. Bringing fact-checking to a staple of U.S. television like “Meet the Press” will mean reaching millions of viewers every Sunday. The goal, Sharockman says, “is to bring more fact-based information to voters, who can use it as they see fit.”
Whether this partnership sets off a new and more methodical approach to fact-checking on U.S. television will depend also on how effective PolitiFact’s fact-checkers and NBC News’ producers will be in turning PolitiFact’s reports into good television. Fact-checking on TV around the world can be very slick, even entertaining, as I have noted recently, but it is often written and produced by television operatives directly.
The partnership’s inaugural fact check dealt with Marco Rubio, who was interviewed by Chuck Todd for “Meet the Press.” Sharockman says this showed the potential of the collaboration, as well as the kinks that need to be ironed out in the coming weeks. Because the Rubio interview was recorded on Saturday, PolitiFact had the time to prepare the fact check for Sunday’s show — which would have provided the information exactly when the viewers wanted it. But in an unrelated production choice, the part of Rubio’s interview being fact-checked had been edited out of the show, so the fact check only appeared online.
3. The context for fact-checking in 2016
Media watchers and political operatives are — how to put it — freaking out about how some candidates seem impervious to fact-checking. This high-profile and continuous collaboration will be a key proving ground to determine fact-checking’s impact on an American presidential campaign. Because the reach of television is so much larger than individual websites, the fact checks emerging from the PolitiFact/NBC News partnership may be the only ones that casual followers of political news will be subjected to.
The partnership is also likely to lead to more influential pundits expressing strong opinions about the usefulness of fact-checking as a journalistic instrument. After all, it was MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow who last year called “self-proclaimed but terrible fact-checkers” like PolitiFact “a modern plague in the news business in this country.” I asked Sharockman whether things have changed since then. “I have no idea how Rachel Maddow feels about PolitiFact today,” he replied. “However, I expect that if she will have issues with our work she will respond with the vim and vigor that she is well-known for.” Regardless of the specific tiff, we can expect the collaboration to bring even greater scrutiny from media watchers and politicians on the merits or demerits of fact-checking in general.
In terms of fact-checkers’ funding, impact and reputation, quite a lot is riding on the success or failure of the PolitiFact/NBC News deal.