July 11, 2018

Is Florida the shark bite capital of the world?

Is Oregon's budget crisis as bad as lawmakers say?

Is Texas running out of water?

Is Greensboro, North Carolina’s CrimeStoppers tip line actually anonymous?

These are four of the dozens of viewer questions Tegna stations have answered since launching Verify, a fact-checking initiative driven by viewers’ questions about the news and their daily lives. More recently, stations have used the method to verify unconfirmed information live during breaking news.

“The whole purpose is to connect with viewers and say, ‘what are the questions, claims or rumors going around that you’re curious about?’” said Jason Puckett, a national Verify reporter. “Send them to us and we’ll dig in and let you know what’s real, what’s not real.”

Tegna launched Verify in 2016 with a pilot at WFAA in Dallas and expanded to all 46 stations in early 2017.

The idea came from one of the company’s innovation summits, which bring together Tegna staff from across the country three times per year to brainstorm new ideas for content and programming. In two years, the summits have produced more than 55 pilots and 18 greenlighted ideas, said vice president of news Ellen Crooke.

“Change is not going to happen from the top down,” Crooke said. “The revolution we need regarding local journalism is going to happen from the people in the field doing it every day.”

Tegna journalists wanted to find a way to improve trust with their audiences, even before the Trump administration took office, Crooke said. They didn’t want to pick questions anybody could answer with a Google search — they wanted to go to original sources and give new insight.

Online newsrooms have adapted similar approaches, many with Hearken, a platform built to help newsrooms listen to their audiences’ story ideas and questions. The Trusting News project found that authentically engaging with readers and fostering conversation helps news organizations build audience trust.

"I've always hoped more fact-checkers would try something along those same lines, with a viewer or reader tagging along for the reporting process," Mark Stencel, co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab, said in an email. "It creates the possibility of two stories in one — the information the reporting itself uncovers, plus the reactions of people who asked for the fact check. Even if a viewer or reader doesn't fully agree with the reporting or conclusions, that can be a telling or interesting reaction."

Verify launched as a program taking citizens along for road trips as reporters answered their questions. It’s expanded to cover breaking news situations, showing audiences what information is confirmed as true or false and addressing rumors that may or may not be true.

In a school shooting outside Houston in May, KHOU updated viewers live and on social media as they verified information and confirmed or disproved rumors.

(Screenshot, KHOU)

Usually Verify content has to be verifiably true or false, Puckett said; the only exception is breaking news, where reporters also address rumors and tell viewers what they’re working to confirm.

“In breaking news, purposefully pointing out things that are unconfirmed helps everybody have more context to what’s going on,” Puckett said. “We’re targeting the pool of growing misinformation and helping clear a path for what’s really going on so the real facts can come through.”

The newest development is a national Verify team, which Puckett leads, that launched earlier this year in Charlotte. He focuses on broader content that’s relevant around the country so local reporters can spend time on questions from their local audiences. The national team has answered questions about summer heat, food safety and health.

Audiences have especially liked reporters’ transparency about the sources they use, Puckett said. He’s excited about where the program can grow, especially in answering questions during breaking news.

“We’re not coming up with story ideas; we’re pulling them from people and showing who we got them from,” Puckett said. “We’re taking what viewers want and trying to answer it.”

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