Nevada became the 36th U.S. state under Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Now, one fact-checker is using him to measure truth.
With Indy Fact Check, a project of the nonprofit Nevada Independent, Riley Snyder is the only dedicated political fact-checker in Nevada. His ratings bear the likeness of Lincoln, ranging from “Honest as Abe” to “All hat, no Abe,” and take a page from PolitiFact (a Poynter-owned project).
“A lot of it is based on the work that PolitiFact has done — reaching out to both sides, forming an argument,” said Snyder, who worked for the fact-checking organization’s Nevada affiliate at KTNV in Las Vegas in the lead-up to the 2016 election. “It’s been a continuation of that work.”
Now a political reporter covering state politics, fact-checking isn’t Snyder’s only day job. The roots of Indy Fact Check go back to last January, when the Independent fact-checked Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address. The project lost steam over the course of the legislative session and then started back up over the summer.
Snyder has spearheaded the project, but on the whole, it’s a group effort.
“I’m the fact check guy because I did that for a year,” he said. “Two other reporters who work in (Nevada state capital) Carson City have done fact checks … if it’s (about) their races they’re covering, they’ll work on them.”
In a time when local journalism has been decimated by cost-cutting, the Independent’s fact-checking project stands out. In a preliminary report published in December, the Duke Reporters’ Lab found that, while fact-checking operations blossomed around the world in 2017, similar projects in the U.S. retrenched. (Disclosure: The Reporters’ Lab helps pay for the Global Fact-Checking Summit.)
As a result, Americans lose out on a format that readers seem to appreciate.
“This is literally the thing where people stop me in the grocery store to say they like what we do,” said Jessica Arp, who runs WISC-TV’s Reality Check, one of the oldest local fact-checking projects in the country. It's in Madison, Wisconsin.
Reality Check began in the early 2000s as an experiment to augment the TV station’s political coverage. Arp said the biggest takeaway was easily the level of interest viewers showed in the segments, which mainly focus on political advertising and statements from politicians.
“People are really looking for someone to turn to — they don’t have the time to go do the digging themselves,” she said. “Providing that information to them is a public service — it helps empower them to make decisions.”
Since Indy Fact Check’s permanent launch over the summer, Snyder has been publishing about two fact checks a month. Now, in preparation for midterm elections in the swing state this fall, he wants fact-checking to take a more active role in Nevada’s political coverage.
“I’d like to continue doing them at a more regular pace,” he said. “We’ve noticed already the campaigns are ramping up. As more ads and stuff starts coming in, I’m sure we’ll have a wealth of stuff to chose from.”
Launching a fact-checking project during a non-election year is atypical. Mark Stencel, co-director of the Reporters’ Lab, told Poynter that — coupled with the fact that it doesn’t have the personnel support of a national outlet like PolitiFact — is what sets Indy Fact Check apart.
“They seem, out of the gate, unusually sophisticated,” he said. “The fact that they jumped right into government and process was impressive. Most fact-checkers start up to cover campaigns and elections, and many fact-checkers go dark.”
To Snyder, that focus is innate. He’s well-versed in the goings-on of Carson City — and he doesn’t take the job lightly.
“I think we’re very policy-focused, governing-focused,” he said. “We’re filling a niche in Nevada that no one else is really filling, and I think that translates well into what we do.”
The expedient need for more local fact-checking was made apparent in last year’s project tally from the Reporters’ Lab. All seven of the losses in American fact-checking project were at the local level — and side projects and startups aim to fill in the gaps.
“It’s an interesting cluster of organizations,” Stencel said. “Early on, this was mostly a newspaper venture. Now, local TV and digital-only and state and local nonprofit news organizations are playing very key roles in the fact-checking ecosystem.”
That variability can likely be attributed to the tendency of fact-checking organizations to crop up during elections rather than periods of governance, Stencel said. An influx of political statements and attack ads are a boon for fact-checkers, who frequently cease working during non-election years.
But at the local level, fact-checking matters; it has an immediate impact on the state and local media market, Stencel said — and both politicians and readers pay attention.
“We’ve always said that fact-checking is a great way for a news organization to distinguish itself in whatever market it’s in,” he said. “The audience loves it or at the very least loves to hate it, if it’s a particularly partisan audience. Either way, it gets a lot of attention and has a big impact right away.”
To Arp, that’s evidence of the need for more projects like Indy Fact Check.
“The more the merrier — I think voters could always use more information rather than less,” she said.
Arp’s advice for Indy Fact Check: Know your audience and find new ways to connect with them.
“When you’re in the heat of a season and there are a lot of ads airing, the No. 1 thing I’m thinking is, ‘What are the ads that my viewers are more likely to have questions about?’” she said. “The more you can find ways to expand that into other areas, it lends more credence to what you’re doing.”