November 1, 2016

In a week’s time, Americans will finally elect their 45th President. PolitiFact, however, isn’t waiting for Election Day to start work on a new feature that will track the promises of Barack Obama’s successor.

The Obameter, PolitiFact’s current “promise meter,” will be retiring at the same time as its namesake. The new meter will build on the lessons of almost eight years of tracking promises at the fact-checking project of the (Poynter-owned) Tampa Bay Times.

“One thing we learned from the Obameter is that all promises are not created equal,” says PolitiFact Executive Director Aaron Sharockman. Choosing to monitor more than 500 campaign promises meant the Obameter was time-consuming for readers to update and sometimes unwieldy for readers to consult.

The new promise-tracker will concentrate on 100-200 promises, while featuring an evolving list of five top promises more prominently. This list will be based on a continuous survey of readers and traffic statistics. Readers will also have the option to receive email notifications when an update is made to specific promises they choose to track.

“We want this to be a living record of the presidency, as opposed to a year in review,” says Sharockman.

Being able to do this will depend in part on how many resources the organization can assign to promise-tracking over the next four years. One solution the organization is considering is working with students at the University of Missouri (Mizzou’s Reynolds Journalism Institute awarded PolitiFact a $20,000 grant to help build the new tracker).

The dragged-out nature of the American presidential election poses two additional challenges to promise-trackers. For one, there are innumerable settings where candidates can make promises to voters. PolitiFact’s selection process looked at what the candidates vowed to do during their debates, at the conventions and other major speeches as well as what is on campaign websites.

The fact-checkers are trying to filter promises that have a wider reach and greater chance of influencing voting decisions. They are also evaluating whether a promise is part of a package that should be monitored as a whole.

Lengthy campaigns can also lead to a significant evolution in promises. Tim Hill, Professor of Political Science at Doane University and an adviser to PolitiFact on this project, notes this seems to have been the case with Trump’s policy on Syrian refugees. Roughly speaking, Trump has gone from promising a complete Muslim ban, to promising one on citizens of countries with links to terrorism, to a policy of “extreme vetting.”

“Those certainly don’t sound like the same thing,” says Hill. A primary voter may have backed Trump for an earlier version of the promise, while an independent may have concentrated on the final version.

PolitiFact hopes to address this challenge partly by including a summary of the promise’s lifespan and context in its individual landing page. Mizzou journalism students are already working on videos and visualizations for some of these promises for both Clinton and Trump.

The Obameter also looks its age. Several projects around the world — from the Australian ABC’s Promise Tracker to Egypt’s Morsi Meter and Iran’s Rouhani Meter — built on PolitiFact’s lead but are more appealing visualizations. Sharockman says the new layout will be taking “cues” from others around the world.

One challenge standardized trackers like these face is the complete agency they seem to place on the shoulders of the promise-maker. A promise may be broken not for want of trying but due to factors that can’t be controlled, such as a hostile Congress controlled by the opposing party. Sharockman says PolitiFact will try to represent a qualitative “degree of difficulty” for each promise.

A campaign pitting the two least-trusted presidential candidates in at least 36 years is likely to be followed by a presidency with high levels of distrust.

Tracking promises could have a big role to play in reconciling perceptions and reality. The widely-held trope that politicians don’t keep their promises may not be that true: Hill has written about this for FiveThirtyEight and other political scientists have discussed this question in depth.

“One thing that frustrates me as a professional political observer is the inability of people to see how difficult politics can be and how sometimes in order to do something important you have to break promises,” says Hill.

Mike McKean, associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and another adviser for this project, thinks a well-devised promise meter can be one instrument to help address the lack of trust not just in politicians but in the media itself.

“If we’re going to hold politicians accountable for the promises they make, we’re going to have to find ways to do it in a manner that is engaging and clear to the public,” McKean says.

PolitiFact’s new promise tracker will go live in the first few weeks of January.

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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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