For fact-checkers, 2016 never really ended.
Last year, fact-checking websites drew record traffic. Polls found majorities in favor of more fact-checking. Many mainstream media organizations shed their reluctance to call out falsehoods within everyday reporting. Studies found that fact-checking can work, despite the “post-fact” doomsayers.
Yet that same year, the Pants-on-Fire candidate became the Pants-on-Fire president. There were indicators of a growing partisan divide in the trust placed in fact-checkers. Some fact checks were forgettable, if not outright ridiculous.
This complicated reality could have led to big changes to the ways fact-checking is conducted. Yet the formats, tone and method adopted by fact-checkers have barely changed since Trump’s inauguration.
In large part, this reflects the reality of supply and demand. The president, for one, continues to offer whoppers on a regular basis.
“I don’t see any change at all,” said Eugene Kiely, director of Factcheck.org, when asked about the difference between candidate and President Trump in terms of factual accuracy. “Even some of the claims he’s making are the same he was making in the campaign.”
In his first 100 days, Trump repeated familiar (baseless) claims on unemployment, crime and voter fraud. If the topics of Trump’s inaccuracies are similar, so is his style.
“He’s still making claims that are outlandish,” said PolitiFact editor Angie Holan.
“Presidents tend to become more scripted after the election,” Kiely said. But Trump is still communicating off-the-cuff as he did during the campaign: tweeting, doing regular pool sprays and even holding actual rallies.
On the demand side, readers continue to display high interest in fact-checking, according to the fact-checkers interviewed for this article. This is despite the end of the campaign, which usually leads to decreased traffic at dedicated fact-checking sites.
“Generally speaking, interest in The Fact Checker has never been higher,” says Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.
Traffic to Factcheck.org barely changed in the first four months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, which was the height of primary season. PolitiFact’s traffic in 2017 was much higher than in the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency, though that in part is caused by “natural growth,” Holan said.
Reader interest has manifested itself not just in clicks but in dollars: PolitiFact’s newly launched membership program has collected almost $200,000, including recurring pledges. (Disclosure: PolitiFact is a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times.)
Sensing continued attention, generalist media outlets have also maintained or expanded fact-checking operations they usually reserve for election season.
“Typically, after a campaign, everybody packs their fact-checking tent and goes home,” Kiely said. “This time, there seems to be more interest.”
Factcheck.org’s contracts with CNN and NBC Universal are set to continue throughout 2017; The New York Times poached one of PolitiFact’s fact-checkers after the campaign was concluded.
Assessing the truthfulness of claims is “one of the dominant storylines” in coverage of the White House, Holan said.
“There’s still a lot of interest in whether the administration is saying the truth.”
Continued interest is a “good development,” Kiely said, because “once the election is over — that’s when the real hard work starts.”
A broader adoption of fact-checking, recognized in Margaret Sullivan’s latest column as well, has led dedicated projects to adapt somewhat.
“Now everyone is a fact checker,” said Kessler.
“Some things were fact-checked within minutes from the President making the statement. So we thought: ‘Well what kind of value added can we add here?’” One of the answers has been an interactive tracker of the president’s falsehoods.
In 2016, fact-checking was shaken up by Donald J. Trump. He continues to dominate their attention.
Some of this is normal. “New administrations get a lot of coverage,” Holan said. “In some ways, a new president always gets more attention.”
Yet all fact-checkers recognize that Trump has sucked much of the oxygen out of fact-checking other public figures.
“It’s not good for the fact-checking business to only write about the president or only about the leaders of Congress,” Kessler said. This spurred him and his colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee to ask readers to send claims from town halls across the country. In another sign of continued interest, readers sent back dozens of claims.
All of the fact-checkers interviewed noted the pace of their work in the first 100 days has been comparable to that during the campaign.
“The intensity of these first 100 days has been extreme,” Holan said.
“The first month we were working seven days a week,” said Kessler, who reckons he and Lee slowed down only because “it was time to get a life again.”
This rhythm and sustained attention make it difficult to take a breath and dramatically rethink fact-checking, as some have called for.
New collaborations with Facebook and Google may well end up significantly altering the reach and formats of fact-checking. Overall, however, American political fact-checking continues much as it did in 2016.
Whether that is ultimately a recipe for success will take more than 100 days to determine.