In the lead up to the midterms in the United States, plenty of fact-checkers covered contentious political battles around the country. They counted falsehoods, broke down the top storylines of the election and fact-checked political ads.
But very little of that work came from local news sources.
According to Mark Stencel, co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, at least 32 state and local fact-checking projects were operational during the midterms in at least 22 states, though he cautioned that “some (were) far more active than others.” In addition, a substantial proportion of these initiatives are partners of (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, which works with local news organizations around the country to produce fact checks. (Disclosure: The Reporters’ Lab helps pay for the Global Fact-Checking Summit.)
“(There’s a) lack of local fact-checking. We're doing it, but I don't think many others are,” Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact, told Poynter. “I think we have a crisis in local journalism, and the lack of local fact-checking is part and parcel of that decline in local coverage.”
The local fact-checking projects not affiliated with PolitiFact vary in format. While The Arizona Republic has a dedicated section for political fact checks, most non-PolitiFact projects in states with key midterm races were based at TV news stations like KMOV in St. Louis, Missouri; KSTP in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and WISC-TV in Wisconsin. One project, the Gazette/KCRG-TV Fact Checker in Iowa, is a collaboration between a newspaper and a TV station.
Jessica Arp, who runs WISC-TV’s Reality Check — one of the oldest local fact-checking projects in the country — told Poynter that the fact-checking project has become a staple for the TV station. During the midterms, she published as many fact checks as she could for a one-person team.
“We tried to focus on ads in statewide races,” she said. “There’s probably never an election where I could say we did enough. I think we did as many as we had time to do.”
Arp said she hasn’t had the time to look at the analytics yet, but in a way, she doesn’t really need to. Reality Check is what viewers talk to her most about — it’s what gets her stopped in the grocery store, she said. And WISC-TV has committed itself to the project over the past 15 years or so.
“We feel strongly, as a station and a company, that this is part of our political brand and this takes us one step further than the horse race coverage that most of the other people in our market and the people in statewide news coverage don’t go,” she said. “From a brand perspective, that’s important to us. That builds loyalty for us.”
But not all news organizations in mid-size markets see it that way.
Some states with key races that lacked local fact-checking projects included Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Holan said that another important example was the Georgia gubernatorial contest between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. While PolitiFact covers politics in the state from a national level, she said Georgia could use more fact-checkers on the ground.
Between 2010 and 2016, staff writers at the AJC published their own fact checks using PolitiFact’s methodology. But that partnership was terminated after the 2016 U.S. election — and it’s not the only local project to stop fact-checking.
In Nevada, PolitiFact used to have a one-year partnership with KTNV in Las Vegas, but that also ended after the 2016 election. The project’s Ohio affiliate was also phased out around that time, only to be brought back this year, Holan said. A local fact-checking project launched by The Nevada Independent to take KTNV’s place was only sparsely updated in the lead up to the midterms.
“Unfortunately, with the small team we have, it got hard to keep the fact check system updated with all the other projects we tried to do during and ahead of the election season,” said Riley Snyder, a reporter who oversees the project, in an email to Poynter.
Some outlets, like the Associated Press, have ramped up their local fact-checking efforts during election cycles. But Bill Adair, co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab and founder of PolitiFact, said in an email that the United States needs more fact-checking organizations specifically focused on local politics.
“There’s a lot of talk lately about news deserts and there are definitely fact-checking deserts, too,” he said. “There are too many states that don’t have any fact-checkers. That means politicians at the state and local level don’t need to worry very much about lying or exaggerating. It’s a lot easier to get away with lies if there are no fact-checkers in town.”
During the midterms, Adair helped a new initiative in North Carolina that built on an existing partnership between PolitiFact and local outlets.
Under the initiative, announced in August, the Raleigh News & Observer partnered with PolitiFact North Carolina, two other McClatchy newspapers in the state and student journalists and professors at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Our North Carolina project, which produced more than 30 fact-checks plus six summary articles that were distributed freely to any news outlet, could be a model for other states,” Adair said. “We showed how college students can supplement the work of professional journalists and expand the number and reach of the fact-checks.”
Grant-funded partnerships at the state level are great for expanding local fact-checking, but Holan said that she’d like to see more TV stations commit to sustainable, long-term projects. In terms of making that happen, Arp said that TV stations have to be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
By running Reality Check, Arp, who is also WISC-TV’s assistant news director, said she has kind of burned out. But to her, the project is still very much worth it.
“I feel like we have a responsibility to the audience now. They expect us to give them this information,” she said. “In newsrooms that are running on slim budgets like ours are, you just have to decide what’s important. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I overextended myself to make this happen for us. But the reward on the other end of that is that you build some loyalty.”
Update: This story has been updated to include the fact that the Associated Press also published fact checks about local elections.