The rest of the world’s fact-checkers collaborate on big elections — why won’t they in the U.S.?

June 26, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

It’s been a week since U.S. President Donald Trump officially launched his reelection campaign at a rally in Orlando, Florida, and heated up the path toward 2020. According to The New York Times, at this very moment, there are 24 Democrats running for the White House. It’s already become clear that the road toward Election Day will be a bumpy one, full of false claims and misinformation. U.S. fact-checkers should expect to work hard and continuously until then.

In recent years, it has become a worldwide trend for fact-checkers to collaborate in multiplatform projects ahead of presidential or other elections. But despite the popularity of these collaborative initiatives in other countries and regions of the world, Americans aren’t openly discussing the possibility of working together to share knowledge and fact-checks during the next presidential campaign. What seems to be a trend in the fact-checking world isn’t making its way into the United States. 

In 2017, French fact-checkers launched Crosscheck, a collaborative project to fight false news around that year’s presidential election. In 2018, Mexicans built Verificado and Brazilians, Comprova, both with similar goals of uniting efforts ahead of large-scale national elections. This year, fact-checkers in Europe launched FactcheckEU in light of their Parliamentary Elections, and now Argentinians are running Reverso, and Bolivians, Bolivia Verifica

All these projects brought together teams from different media outlets and initiatives to share their fact-checks with each other, reach a bigger audience, work faster and verify a larger number of claims. To get these projects running, however, a lot of thoughtful collaboration and correspondence is needed in advance. And U.S. fact-checkers haven’t even begun discussing this possibility.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, listed a few possible reasons for this. First, he said U.S. fact-checkers don’t have any sort of coalition that could gather the initiatives and coordinate the project, as have existed in other countries. Secondly, from the Americans’ point of view, there seems to be the sense that when more people write about the same topic, there is a greater chance of getting closer to the truth. 

“Some of this also comes from our First Amendment, which journalists interpret, in part, to mean from freedom and individuality comes strength,” he said.

For Rosenstiel, this would explain why U.S fact-checking platforms seem to prefer verifying the same claim twice or three times, rather than borrowing from each others’ work in a Crosscheck-like project.

The third reason he presented is related to the United State.’s current media environment. Rosenstiel expressed concern at the relationship this future coalition could have with the Trump administration, especially considering the way the U.S. president treats media

“By being one group, they would be an easier target,” he said. “Fact-checkers would probably be attacked as being a group that got together to criticize Trump. When U.S. fact checkers work separately, they show there is no such thing as an articulation against a candidate or an administration.” 

Angie Holan, the editor at PolitiFact, agrees with this concern. In an email to the IFCN, she said she sees it as positive for  American journalism that the three major fact-checking organizations (PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker) work independently.

When the three groups reach the same conclusions separately, it shows the validity of the findings”, she explained. “(PolitiFact is) interested in pursuing partnerships with organizations that can help us reach new audiences, cover specific issues or topics in more depth, or use new technology.” 

Eugene Kiely, the director of FactCheck.org, said he suspects U.S. fact-checkers aren’t planning to collaborate in a CrossCheck-like project for 2020 for copyright reasons. In an email, he explained his point of view:

“Most fact-checkers in the U.S. are part of major news organizations, such as NPR, AP, The Washington Post and (until recently) the Tampa Bay Times. The Washington Post is behind a paywall. U.S. news organizations are also fiercely protective of their editorial independence, so that may have something to do with it, too.”

Kiely said that since the initiative he leads is nonprofit, some of FactCheck.org’s stories are available for use on other media websites.

Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact and Knight Professor of Journalism & Public Policy at Duke University, said U.S fact-checkers are collaborating, just in a different way. He emphasized that Americans have been using ClaimReview (a tagging tool that logs fact-checks published around the world into one database) for a long time and that The Washington Post Fact Checker, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org distribute their work together through The Duke Reporters’ Lab’s FactStream app. He noted that previous collaborative projects have been led by First Draft, and not by a specific team of fact-checkers.

Claire Wardle of First Draft, a nonprofit geared towards supporting journalists in the digital age, said in an email her team is “preparing to support newsrooms of all sizes across the U.S. to collaborate” ahead of 2020. This will occur in a few months’ time. 

“It’s taking some time to get the right foundations in place so that the CrossCheck model can be applied across industries and disciplines. This is particularly relevant leading up to the U.S. elections, because the model we are building will allow us to connect journalists from different beats and locations,” she said. 

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  • PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan: “When the three groups reach the same conclusions separately, it shows the validity of the findings.”

    Rubbish. If three politically polarized organizations were reaching the same conclusions, then it would offer support for the validity of the findings (triangulation). Where the organizations are politically aligned it shows nothing of the sort.

    Should we simply assume that U.S. fact-checking organizations are politically polarized compared to each other?

    Holan may have in mind Michelle Amazeen’s failed attempt (see “The Epistemology of Fact-Checking (is Still Naive)” by Joseph E. Uscinski) to show fact-checker agreement supports fact-checker accuracy. The truth is that PolitiFact often doesn’t even agree with itself.* And there should be no disagreement that when two fact-checks reach different conclusions separately, it shows that at least some of the findings lack validity.

    *For examples, see PolitiFact’s body of work concerning Medicare/Medicaid cuts or its treatment of claims concerning the gender wage gap