One year ago, Donald Trump was elected president. And since then, fact-checkers have continued to be front and center in keeping him accountable.
Last year, Poynter reported the 2016 election was probably the most fact-checked election ever. The Duke Reporters’ Lab found 52 initiatives operated throughout the duration of the campaign, and the “Big Three” fact-checking organizations — PolitiFact, The Washington Post Fact Checker and FactCheck.org — all broke traffic records.
That momentum has continued throughout 2017. And while the processes, tone and methods used by fact-checkers haven’t changed much, the way they interact with the White House has.
“With this administration, you can’t take anything at face value — you have to double-check everything they say to see if it’s accurate,” said Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact.
Glenn Kessler, who runs The Washington Post Fact Checker, agreed. Both he and Holan told Poynter one of the biggest challenges presented by this presidential administration is the sheer volume of false statements it makes.
As of publication, PolitiFact (a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times) had checked 470 of Trump’s claims over the years — nearly 70 percent of which were rated between “Mostly False” and “Pants-on-Fire.” The Fact Checker has an ongoing database of all the false claims Trump has made since taking office. After 263 days, it was at 1,318.
While these are not representative samples, other media accounts have documented Trump's frequent fact-twisting. So after a year of an inaccurate presidential administration, what have fact-checkers learned about how to cover the White House?
Poynter caught up with editors at three of the biggest fact-checking organizations in the U.S. and asked them. Their responses have been shortened for clarity.
Angie Holan, PolitiFact
What’s on my mind today is there was this example of Trump feeding the koi. It’s basically about how Trump was feeding some fish and then he dumped his box of food into the water, and obviously we’re like, ‘Oh, look at terrible Trump overfeeding the fish.’ Well, Trump was just imitating what the Japanese prime minister had done. But as a fact-checker, it’s hard to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt on anything because their track record is so poor when it comes to accuracy. Now we’re seeing stuff where things they say they have to retract later, like Carter Page and his connections to Russia.
Our internal processes are very much the same, it’s the results that are coming out different. There are so many negative ratings for Trump. I know comparing his scorecard to Barack Obama’s, they don’t look anything similar — and it’s not because we’re biased, it’s because Trump says things that are demonstrably false.
The other thing is that I feel like we spend a lot of our time fact-checking simple matters of fact that wouldn’t need to be disputed if the people speaking were more careful or more responsible. We spend a lot of time fact-checking things that are simple to disprove … More than fact-checkers, for the general media, I worry that we’re spending a lot of time policing simple matters of fact when we could be doing stories that are focused on bigger problems, bigger issues. But it’s like you can’t get to bigger issues if you have a press conference and everything that was said at that press conference was misleading and inaccurate. You have to cover that first.
For people who are interested in a well-informed, accurate and nuanced public debate over important issues, odds are not good (laughs).
Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post Fact Checker
So actually I believe I have learned nothing (laughs). I covered Donald Trump 30 years ago when I was a business reporter in Manhattan and he was a real estate investor. His handling of the truth back then is exactly as it is now. So I had not many high expectations that he would demonstrate a lot of veracity as a presidential candidate, and those very low expectations were met with his presidency.
The one thing we did this year to deal with the torrent of false statements was create this database of false claims. Because really The Fact Checker is designed to be a substantive look at policy issues, and the problem with a lot of the things Donald Trump says is that they’re so easily fact-checked, you can fact-check it in a tweet and it’s just not really at the core of what The Fact Checker is trying to do. So for some of his speeches, we ended up doing lots of roundups — here are 20 false things he said in this speech about the Paris accord — just a quick little summary. A lot of these things can be dispensed with quickly or things we’ve already fact-checked before, and the database was designed to offer another venue for that.
2016 was a record year for traffic (at The Fact Checker), 2017 will be by far yet another record year. So the interest in what we’ve written has continued to climb significantly … Our audience has grown more in the past year than the audience overall for The Washington Post website.
Eugene Kiely, FactCheck.org
Part of the difficulty in fact-checking this particular president is that, unlike past presidents, he’s not as scripted. So what he says at certain events or in certain settings is different than what we’ve heard from other presidents. They usually come out with particular methods and they’re very scripted, and he’s not.
One of the frustrations as a fact-checker is that you get some inconsistencies within the same event. For example, when he made his comment about Barack Obama not making phone calls to families (of fallen soldiers), well he said that he didn’t make phone calls and then, ‘I don’t think he made phone calls’ and then, ‘Well, that’s what I heard.’ The statement that you’re fact-checking is usually one statement and it’s usually consistent, but in this case there were like three different versions of what he said — all in the same press conference. So what do you fact-check?
In that case, we didn’t fact-check anything because he said something and then said something different and then he said something different again. By that point, it’s like it’s a news story, it’s not really a fact-checking story. That’s one of the main differences between him and other presidents.
Also, he tweets a lot, obviously. You only get 140 (or 280) characters, so there’s a brevity there that can lend to some vagueness or misunderstanding and that kind of thing. We really need to, as we do in all cases, call the source of that claim first and — if it’s the White House — try to get some understanding of what it was he was saying and support for whatever it is we’re fact-checking. The White House is sometimes responsive, sometimes not responsive. I don’t know why that is, but usually — at least my experience with the previous administration — was we always had a response, or nearly always got a response. And that is not always happening here.