This story was first published on the Duke Reporters’ Lab website.
Amid the political lies and misinformation that spread across the country throughout the 2022 midterm elections, statements by candidates in 29 states rarely faced the scrutiny of independent fact-checkers.
Why? Because there weren’t any local fact-checkers.
Even in the places where diligent local media outlets regularly made active efforts to verify the accuracy of political claims, the volume of questionable statements in debates, speeches, campaign ads and social posts far outpaced the fact-checkers’ ability to set the record straight.
An initial survey by Reporters’ Lab at Duke University identified 46 locally focused fact-checking projects during this year’s campaign in 21 states and the District of Columbia. That count is little changed in the national election years since 2016, when an average of 47 fact-checking projects were active at the state and local level.
Active State/Local Fact-Checkers in the U.S., 2003-22
There’s also been lots of turnover among local fact-checking projects over time. At least 40 projects have come and gone since 2010. And fact-checking is not always front and center, even among the news outlets that devote considerable effort and time to this reporting.
While some fact-checkers consistently produce reports from election to election, many others are campaign-season one-offs. And the overwhelming emphasis on campaign claims can produce a fact-vacuum after the votes are counted — when elected officials, party operatives and others in the political process continue to make erroneous and misleading statements.
Fact-checks also can be hard for readers and viewers to find — sometimes appearing only in a broader scroll of state political news, with little effort to make this vital reporting stand out or to showcase it on a separate page.
The Duke Reporters’ Lab conducted this initial survey to assess the state of local fact-checking during the 2022 midterm elections. The Lab first began tracking fact-checking projects across the United States and around the world in 2014 and maintains a global database and map of fact-checking projects.
While 29 states currently appear to have no fact-checking projects that regularly report on claims from politicians or social media at the local level, residents may encounter occasional one-off fact-checks from their state’s media outlets.
Among the states lacking dedicated fact-checking projects are four that had hotly contested Senate or governor races this fall — New Hampshire, Kansas, Ohio and Oregon.
The states with the most robust fact-checking in terms of projects based there include Texas with five outlets; Iowa and North Carolina with four; and Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin with three each.
Competition seems to generate additional fact-checking. States with active fact-checking projects tend to have at least two (14 states of the 21), while seven states and D.C. have a single locally focused project.
Local television stations are the most active fact-check producers. Of the outlets that generated fact-checks at the state and local level this year, more than half are local television stations. That’s a change over the past two decades, when newspapers and their websites were the primary outlets for local fact-checks.
Who Produces Local Fact-Checks?
Almost all local fact-checking projects are run by media outlets, while several are based at universities or nonprofit organizations. The university-related fact-checkers are Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; The Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa’s independent student newspaper; and West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. All three are state affiliates of PolitiFact, the prolific national fact-checking organization based at the nonprofit Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.
National news partnerships and media owners drive a significant amount of local fact-checking. Of the 46 projects, almost a quarter are affiliated with PolitiFact, while another half-dozen are among the most active local stations participating in the Verify fact-checking project by TV company Tegna. In addition, five Graham Media Group television stations use a unified Trust Index brand at the local level.
One of the newest efforts to encourage local fact-checking is Repustar’s Gigafact, a nonprofit project that partnered with three newsrooms to counter misinformation during the midterms. The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nevada Independent and Wisconsin Watch produced “fact briefs,” which are short, timely reports that answer yes or no questions, such as “Is Nevada’s violent crime rate higher than the national average?”
Nearly 40 percent of the fact-checkers in the Lab’s count got their start since 2020, including 11 projects in that year alone. In contrast, the oldest fact-checker, WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, began producing its Reality Check segments almost two decades ago, in 2004. It’s among 12 fact-checkers that have been active for 10 years or more.
Another new initiative launched in April to increase Spanish language fact-checking at the local level in the U.S. — but with the help of two prominent international fact-checking organizations.
Factchequeado, a partnership between Maldita.es of Spain and Chequeado in Argentina, has built a network of 27 allies, including 19 local news outlets in the U.S. through which they share fact-checks and media literacy content. Currently, the majority of Factchequeado fact-checks are produced at the national level by its own staff. Through its U.S. partnerships, Factchequeado aims to train Hispanic journalists to produce original fact-checks in Spanish at the local level.
The Reporters’ Lab conducted this survey with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which also has helped fund the Lab’s work on automated fact-checking. The Lab intends to follow up its initial assessment of the local fact-checking landscape with a post-election report that will dive into some of the challenges facing journalists trying to do this vital work. Our follow-up report will explore the content of local fact-checkers’ work in 2022, including data on whom they fact-checked and their approaches to rating claims. We will interview local reporters, producers and editors about public and political feedback and their editorial processes and methodologies. We also intend to examine why some local fact-checking initiatives are short-lived election-year efforts while others have carried on consistently for many years.
Here’s how we decide which fact-checkers to include in the Reporters’ Lab database. The Lab continually collects new information about the fact-checkers it identifies, such as when they launched and how long they last. If you know of a fact-checking project that has been missed, please contact Mark Stencel and Erica Ryan at the Reporters’ Lab.
Joel Luther of the Reporters’ Lab contributed to this report.