I spent two weeks with the best TV fact-checkers. Here’s what I learned.
It is 8:55 a.m. on a Thursday, and the journalist Natalia Hernández is on a train that connects downtown Madrid to Fuencarral, one of the Spanish capital's northern districts.
It is freezing outside. The city lights are still on. Hernández is concentrating, her eyes glued to her phone. Playing through her headphones is an interview with Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister.
In three hours, Hernández will be dressed up, wearing makeup and live on "Al Rojo Vivo," one of the flagship shows on Spain's laSexta TV network. She will speak to an audience of over 1 million people and rattle off the lies told by the prime minister that morning.
I was with Hernández on that train. For the next fortnight, I worked alongside her and the team at “El Objetivo,” the only Spanish program with a dedicated fact-checking segment.
I arrived in Madrid mid-January on a fellowship from Poynter with the intention of learning how to perform fact-checking on TV. Agência Lupa, the fact-checking agency that I have directed since 2015, is looking to break into television, too.
Before I got to the office that morning, I wrote down my first lesson: TV fact-checking requires foresight. The whole team must know, from the very first moments of the day, where the most important political leaders of the country are. Without this schedule, fact-checkers can’t get public officials on the record. And without these videos, TV doesn’t have its primary source material.
When we got to El Objetivo studios at 9:15 a.m., the three fact-checkers from Hernández's team were also listening to Rajoy. They had already taken note of some dubious statements and requested that the archivists pull those snippets for further review.
This was my second lesson during my time in Madrid: Quality fact-checking on TV requires a team of record-keepers — a group that can record, splice, transcribe and store each political statement made during the day.
Manuela Ruiz leads the archive team at El Objetivo. Every morning, she programs the software that records the interviews and speeches requested by the fact-checkers. This system, created in Spain, stores several 15-minute recordings in a file shared the entire staff. The search system can locate sentences that are frequently repeated and suggest cuts.
Ana Pastor, the director and host of El Objetivo, usually arrives at the office a little before 10 a.m. That morning, she walked in asking about Rajoy's falsehoods. She wanted the newsiest clips.
Pastor is the creator of El Objetivo and the face of the show. She has a long career on Spanish television and 1.88 million followers on Twitter. When she was in the United States in 2013, Pastor admired CNN’s fact-checking and decided to bring the format to the other side of the Atlantic.
Within four months, Pastor, deputy directors Joaquin Ortega and Itziar Bernaola and Executive Producer Esperanza Martin set up a presentation, recorded a six-minute spot and convinced laSexta to carry the fact-checks live.
When I met Pastor at the beginning of 2017, she was leading a team of 30 journalists and dozens more — a camera crew, infographic producers, audio and video editors and many others.
At 10:30 a.m., fact-checker Alejandro Olvera told the group he had caught Rajoy's first false statement. Shortly after, Jesús Espinosa and Álvaro Lorenzo also caught something. The trio celebrated. That week, Spain was contemplating — with displeasure — an increase in electricity prices, Rajoy’s misleading remarks were on the same topic.
Hernández notified Pastor, who contacted the editors of “Al Rojo Vivo” and secured airtime so the fact-checking from El Objetivo could go live on laSexta outside its habitual Sunday evening window. That’s when I learned my third lesson: TV fact-checking starts where textual fact-checking — the one that I am so used to — ends.
Lesson four: Writing a TV script takes practice.
Dialogs are more productive than monologues
TV fact-checking requires two journalists: the fact-checker, who presents the subject, and an anchor, who plays the role of the ordinary citizen, fielding any questions that the viewers may have.
The fact-checker must know their stuff
The fact-checker is like a good waiter: They bring out the main dish, explain its ingredients, answer any questions people may have, and leave the scene knowing that they were clear and precise on that subject.
Prefer simple, relevant vocabulary
Speak so that people will understand you. Less is more.
Put extra data in the script
The fact-checker should have additional high-quality material at hand, just in case a graph cannot be displayed at the right moment or if a more difficult question is asked.
Use short sentences
Choose small chunks of short ideas. The people watching TV may be doing other things at the same time, and fact-checking can only be understood if followed from beginning to end.
Repeat the fact-checked content
It is always good form to repeat the fact-checked sentence. People may turn on the TV during the deconstruction of the facts and lose the original claim.
Make sure your script has a dramatic arc
If you are checking more than one fact, choose a worthy finale. Leave the worse falsehood for last.
Use graphs and videos to surprise the viewers
Look for new formats and colors. Don't do the same old thing, but stay on course with the show's overall aesthetic.
Use one fact per graph.
Instead of overlapping information, put up two graphs. Less is more, again. The fact-checker should state the sources, which should also appear in writing.
Find a host who's fact-checked before
It is best if they are part of the team that works daily to detect truths and lies.
TV requires graphics, well-edited videos and a much clearer explanation of the facts. For all this to work, the script must be pristine (lesson four, see sidebar). So while Raúl Otegui — the producer — scrambled to transform El Objetivo's offices into a TV studio, Hernández and Olvera were rushing to turn the falsehoods published on the show's website into compelling TV. They made sure the archivists knew which Rajoy speech included the fact-checked falsehood and gave the infographic team data on electricity that should appear on viewers' screens.
At 12:20 p.m., El Objetivo's production team shouted "Silence." Hernández went on air. In three minutes, she explained that Rajoy had given a radio interview in which he presented three false pieces of information. Hernández showed graphs with actual data, then politely said goodbye to the news anchor. She spent, on average, one minute on each lie told by Rajoy.
I asked Pastor what the chances were that Moncloa Palace — the prime minister’s official residence — would call complaining about the fact check. She laughed and said: "None. They ignore us. However, we have gotten Rajoy to correct himself."
Pastor thinks Rajoy stopped saying Spain is the fastest growing country in Europe after the show fact-checked the claim extensively.
For the past four years, El Objetivo has featured the main political players in Spain. Rajoy has never accepted the show’s invitation, but he is frequently the rated on its truth thermometer; as are opposition stalwarts. Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, of the rival Podemos party, were interviewed on the two shows that I witnessed.
TV has significant penetration in Spanish society, and citizens need first of all to know the lies their leaders tell, Pastor said.
The fifth lesson I learned while immersed at El Objetivo concerns the internet. The program is a global leader in TV fact-checking but is still taking its first steps in the digital world.
El Objetivo is not a typical fact-checking initiative. It began on TV and later expanded to the web (ObjetivoXtra, its website, has updated information and additional fact checks). The team still has a ways to go in the digital realm, but they like to point out that they focus most of their efforts on television.
There is evidence that their web presence is gaining traction, however. In February, the show's Facebook page had 59,000 likes. It had 265,000 followers on Twitter. The lesson here? TV fact checking is time-consuming, and digital requires a separate team.
In the afternoon, El Objetivo's fact-checkers started work on their primary product: the Sunday show. Hernández and three checkers fired up their software, plugged in their headphones and listened to all that had happened that morning. They noticed false remarks from the president of Andalusia, and the gears began turning again.
El Objetivo is broadcast live at 9:25 p.m. every Sunday. The fact-checking section is called "Prueba de Verificación" (Proof of Verification) and it is usually shown at the end, around 10:15 p.m. But Pastor and Hernández are in the studio by 7 p.m. to do a complete rehearsal before the segment airs. Rehearsing is crucial, they tell me — that is lesson six. They review the script together, scribble on it the information that needs to be aired no matter what, check the order of the clips and the information on the graphs. There is no room for error.
El Objetivo's set is streamlined but eye-catching. It has a white floor with small blue lights. There is a white table in the center, also lit. It has a touchscreen that shows the infographics when the fact-checkers touch it. In the back, there is a large screen where the main checked information is projected.
On Saturday, the script rehearsed by Pastor, Hernández and their team was about 10 pages long and included 42 extra elements — videos, graphs, animations. There were 15 additional elements in the script that the team had left "ready to go" on Friday evening; and 14 less than what actually aired.
I asked Pastor whether this wasn’t a waste of time. She denied it, citing the seventh lesson: "On TV, you need to have this something extra. Anything can happen, but the journalist cannot be left empty-handed, without quality content."
In addition to Prueba de Verificación, El Objetivo has three other sections that resemble fact-checking. "Maldita Hemeroteca" (Damned Archives), presented by Clara Jiménez, consists of videos of public figures contradicting themselves. “Sé lo que hiciste con el último contrato,” presented by Inés Calderón, shows the status of public works. And "Pacto Check," presented by Miriam Ruiz, charts of the evolution of political promises. Not all four sections air every Sunday — it depends on the time leftover on the show after Pastor does her interviews.
So how does one start fact-checking on television? Ortega goes straight to the point: Rehearse on the Internet. On one of my last days at El Objetivo, Ortega showed me some videos that he deemed to be of high quality and made a point of stating that you do not need top technology to start recording.
"Look at the YouTubers. What you need is to start by doing something.”
Ortega likes to follow the posts from Vox and the YouTube creators at Playground. Lesson eight. Be inspired by what you already like. And, Pastor adds this tidbit, my ninth lesson: "You don't need anyone from TV. You need to have a good journalist on the team."
Lesson 10: If you want to become a TV fact-checker, use benchmarks set by those that are already doing a great job, like El Objetivo. At Lupa, we are starting to organize our TV unit. Brazil will face a presidential election in 2018 and desperately needs fact-checking on its major TV channels.
Special thanks to translator Manuela Souza de Sampaio.