Nineteen (!) debates into this primary season, we have yet to see a truly effective effort by the hosting networks to fact-check the candidates live on air.
Notable moments in this long slog included Becky Quick’s apology to Trump for being correct about his characterization of Rubio as “Zuckerberg’s personal Senator,” John Dickerson being booed by the audience for correcting Ted Cruz on the historical record of confirming Supreme Court nominees in an election year and Fox’s more muscular attempt to point out that Trump’s budget figures didn’t add up.
Wednesday night’s Democratic debate could have been different.
Univision’s newly launched Detector de Mentiras (Lie Detector), staffed by the network’s similarly new data unit, was supposed to provide fact checks to the moderators for live use during the debate.
Ronny Rojas, data editor at Univision News Digital, told Poynter that his team’s goal was initially “to interact with the candidates and to pass along to the moderators follow-up questions based on our findings after fact checking some of their statements.”
This proposal ultimately didn’t make the cut as Univision and the DNC ironed out the conditions of the debate.
Live fact-checking on air during debates has been attempted outside the United States. In the Italian Democratic Party’s primary debates of 2012/2013, broadcaster Sky confronted candidates with fact checks of their claims. While the results were mixed, it was nonetheless a structured effort that has yet to be seen in this election campaign.
Rojas, formerly an investigative reporter at Costa Rica’s La Nación, led a team of 10 to fact-check the debate online.
“It was ambitious to launch this project on the night of an internationally televised debate, but they were prepared and it went quite well,” said Jane Elizabeth, who heads a project on accountability reporting for the American Press Institute and assisted with training.
As the first U.S.-based Spanish-language fact-checking project, Detector de Mentiras fits into a broader trend to expand the reach of journalism in this country to hispanophone audiences (2016 has also seen the launch of The New York Times en Español and CUNY’s new Spanish-language program).
Rojas said his team studied English-language fact-checkers at PolitiFact and The Washington Post (who alongside Factcheck.org have been on active debate patrol duty throughout this campaign), but is keen to make Detector de Mentiras develop its distinct personality.
While Univision “won’t exclude anything” in terms of what it will fact-check, it will “put a focus on issues that are central to the Hispanic population” such as immigration, education and health care, Rojas said.
Beyond language and topics, Rojas hopes Detector de Mentiras will stand out because it will rely more heavily on investigative reporting for its fact-checking.
This is in line with the background of the members of the data unit’s team of five, composed primarily of investigative journalists from across Latin America.
It also fits with Univision’s overall strategy in recent years; Poynter’s Al Tompkins says “Univision has been asserting itself as a significant player in investigative work over the past few years,” citing its Rape in the fields and Rape on the Night Shift projects.
Detector de Mentiras will be fact-checking U.S. presidential candidates throughout the general election campaign.
After that, Rojas hopes to extend the team’s scope and fact-check politicians across Latin America, as well as opinion leaders, business figures and entertainers, so long as the focus is issues of public interest.