CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan didn’t start his career in broadcasting. But he’s been fact-checking since he became a journalist.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, O’Sullivan crossed the country to report on how conspiracy theories affected voters’ attitudes about the presidential election and the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sept. 29, O’Sullivan spoke with PolitiFact Editor-in-Chief Angie Holan about technology’s intersection with online misinformation during United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking. PolitiFact and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies hosted the three-day conference, which concluded Sept. 29. All sessions were streamed online.
O’Sullivan covers how online misinformation manifests in people’s everyday activities, including their behavior on social media and at political rallies. Recognizing that he can’t solve all of American democracy’s challenges, he said he tries to understand what underpins them by meeting and talking with people wherever they are.
“A majority of Republicans do not believe Biden legitimately won the election,” O’Sullivan reports in a clip focused on the complexity within the party.
O’Sullivan, who is based in New York City, started out on the breaking news desk at CNN and moved into investigative work during the justice department’s investigation into Russian election interference.
To navigate the “lie of the day,” O’Sullivan said, he follows several politically extreme groups and pages on Facebook and other platforms. He said it’s difficult to “adjust the kind of tone and tenor of our coverage in media, more generally, to rebuild trust,” when a large part of the electorate claims that the majority of factual information is false.
O’Sullivan covered a rally shortly after PolitiFact launched its fact-checking partnership with Facebook in 2016. The program works when Facebook, a platform he said some people see as their own version of a fact-check, flags popular content that is not based on evidence as misinformation.
“What I learned like, immediately, at this Trump event was everybody was talking about the fact-checkers,” O’Sullivan said. “They had become demonized in the way that the mainstream media is. And people saw it as a badge of honor, actually, when their stuff was getting marked as false.”
O’Sullivan said CNN is occasionally criticized for holding “people in power to account,” when investigating exaggerations or misstatements of fact made by the Biden administration.
“The misinformation problem is obviously, you know, far more pronounced on the right and in the Republican Party at this time, but that is not to say that … it’s an exclusive thing to there,” O’Sullivan said.
Reading fact-checks is a crucial part of O’Sullivan’s reporting. One of his strategies is “to steer in terms of … the pieces of misinformation that are going viral or getting traction.” He said he tries to gauge the atmosphere in the political parties and the narratives that are emerging around the nation.
“Oftentimes, I will hear something that I haven’t read online or have never heard before, really, and then, you know, a week or two later, I’ll say, ‘Oh, this is now trending online,’” O’Sullivan said. “It’s very informative to be able to get out there.”
Some media organizations operate irresponsibly, O’Sullivan said — they are “prone to being alarmist,” especially if outlets are dismissive of nuanced claims or fail to own up to their mistakes. He emphasized the relevance of independent media oversight in a time when he said it’s “hard to be optimistic” about the American political structure.
“With these elections for governors and for secretaries of states — people who will be in charge of elections in 2024 — we’re seeing essentially anti-democratic conspiracy theory candidates, you know, running in some major states and swing states,” he said.
O’Sullivan said he speaks directly with people who consume misinformation — not just fact-check it. “Normal people” — family, friends, neighbors — are susceptible to counterfactual information every day, he said.
“But then when there’s this one thing, this could be about the election, that’s kind of when you see, you know, something changes and they change,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan said journalists need to try to understand how the media ecosystem has contributed to people becoming “enabled” and ”sympathetic to the violence.” He saw these elements combust up close as he reported live outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots.
“If we can be there in that moment, watching all of this fact-checking, or just reading, seeing how it is spreading, that is going to be absolutely critical to telling the accurate story in the days, weeks, months after the election,” O’Sullivan said.