TULSA, Oklahoma — It all started with a tailgate. Well, kind of.
“The genesis of the idea came from a brainstorming meeting in Washington, D.C., in early February,” said Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact. “It was really kind of an idea that we should just go to a tailgate — go to a college football game and say we’re there — and draw a crowd and talk to people.”
Their goal: travel beyond big metropolitan areas and interact with skeptical media consumers in Trump country.
This week, four staffers from PolitiFact — the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — are headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the second leg of a tour of conservative America. Launched two weeks ago in Mobile, Alabama, and concluding with a visit to Charleston, West Virginia, in mid-October, the project aims to reach out to the 88 percent of Donald Trump supporters who, according to a September Rasmussen Reports survey, do not trust media fact-checking.
Sharockman said the team chose the cities for a variety of reasons, such as their different sizes, region and lack of involvement with PolitiFact, but one commonality stands out — they all went for Trump in 2016.
“Like a lot of media after the 2016 election, we did some kind of thinking about how we can improve our credibility and trust among readers, particularly among conservative readers or Donald Trump voters,” Sharockman told Poynter. “Wherever we go, the more people get to know us, the more that they trust us. We wanted to kind of test this hypothesis in new areas and communities.”
In Mobile, PolitiFact staffers held an open forum at a local library to take questions and discuss how they check political claims on a daily basis. They also described what their new, Knight Foundation-funded partnership with Alabama Media Group-owned AL.com will look like, a model they’re also using with the Tulsa World in Oklahoma and a to-be-decided local news outlet in Charleston in order to bring local fact checks to new audiences.
In spirit, it’s a good idea for media organizations to try and grow their audiences. But as PolitiFact learned after the Mobile forum, it’s hard to bring people to the table who fundamentally doubt your work.
“We have come to the realization that it’s going to be challenging for us to put together an event and have 100 people that are skeptical of fact-checking,” Sharockman said. “For me, the goal is to just touch as many people as we can.”
Not everyone is convinced that PolitiFact’s face time with red America will pay dividends. Charlie Sykes, a conservative American political commentator and prominent opponent of Trump, told Poynter that PolitiFact’s reputation among elected Republican officials was ruined long before the election — and that distrust has been distilled to voters through right-wing media.
“Over the years, PolitiFact had burned through so much of its credibility and its goodwill among conservatives that it was almost completely ineffective to use them at all,” he said. “I think you’d have a hard time finding a lot of Republican officials that would say, ‘Absolutely, PolitiFact is fair and down-the-middle all the time.”
In his upcoming book “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” Sykes details his disdain for the fact-checkers in a sub-chapter titled “The Problem with PolitiFact.” He said that the organization lost credibility on the right by conducting “gotcha” fact-checking and cherry-picking quotes to cover — especially during the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act.
“That, after a while, really did a lot of damage — and it really did a lot of damage at a moment when fact-checking was supposed to be so powerful,” Sykes said.
PolitiFact and Sykes aren’t exactly strangers. When he hosted a conservative talk show on WTMJ in Milwaukee, Sykes was fact-checked three times by the organization’s Wisconsin chapter, earning one “False” and two “Pants-on-fire” for his claims. He said he doesn’t think a tour alone will restore trust between PolitiFact and Republican voters.
“They’re going to need more than a tour,” Sykes said. “This is not a PR problem — it’s a credibility problem.”
Regardless, PolitiFact is pressing ahead with its investment in new markets. Sharockman said the organization’s Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Florida-based staff will shoulder the extra work of fact-checking political statements in Alabama, Oklahoma and West Virginia by using personnel and resources it invested in covering the 2016 election (the fact-checking outfit has 11 full-time employees and a smattering of contributing writers and editors). It will then in turn distribute the content to partners like a wire service.
“We grew in 2016 to cover the election and, for the most part, anticipated shrinking in 2017,” he said. “That didn’t really happen.”
PolitiFact isn’t the only media outlet doubling down on political coverage nearly one year after November’s divisive presidential election outcome. CNN notably invested $50 million more in 2016 campaign coverage than in 2012 and added 45 new journalists to its political team. The New York Times increased its White House cadre from four to six, and The Washington Post made a similar investment. Politico now has the largest political team in its 10-year history.
But while many outlets fix their gaze on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and beyond, PolitiFact is traveling to red states and seeking out voters in order to appeal to new audiences — something political pundits lamented incessantly in the months after the election. And they’re doing it in, well, a political way.
In Tulsa, PolitiFact plans to hand out fliers to pedestrians around the city, coordinate an event at a local brewery and attend a GOP meeting. (Poynter will be reporting on how this goes.) They may not win over many non-readers, but — as with political campaigns — at least they’ll be talking to them.
“At PolitiFact, quite frankly, 95 percent of our jobs are spent in front of a computer and we could work, in many cases, from anywhere. We don’t get out a lot and actually meet the people we’re writing for,” Sharockman said. “It’s a little bit like a campaign — the candidate here is the truth and PolitiFact, and that’s what we’re trying to sell.”