In Oklahoma, PolitiFact used campaign strategy to appeal to new readers. Will it work?

TULSA, Oklahoma — The first question was about Bigfoot.

“If a U.S. senator said that Bigfoot is real, would you feel compelled to assert that, actually, Bigfoot is a myth?” asked Scott Pendleton.

Jon Greenberg, a national staff writer for PolitiFact, took that one.

“If people were talking about Bigfoot — if it’s in the news — we might take our time to do that,” he said. “But if it’s a purely random statement, I don’t see us running something on it.”

Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact, followed with a comparison.

“If a senator claimed that the former president of the United States was born in Kenya, and most everyone would agree that he wasn’t born in Kenya, do you think we should fact-check that?” he asked. “How many people think Barack Obama was not born in the United States?”

Three or four people raised their hands.

“So I think that’s a fair thing to fact-check,” Sharockman said.

That’s a bizarre sample of the Q-and-A at PolitiFact’s open forum Wednesday evening. About 100 people attended the event, which was held as part of the fact-checking organization’s outreach effort in some of America’s most conservative states. Pendleton, a former staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, wanted to know how the organization would go about retroactively changing its fact checks should a myth be proven true, a question that quickly devolved into an anti-vaccine rant.

While outlandish, those interactions highlight the ups and downs PolitiFact experienced in Tulsa last week, where it held a forum at the downtown public library, met with local GOP leaders and hosted a brewery happy hour to connect with voters. While some Oklahomans told Poynter they came to outreach events this past week to express their doubt in PolitiFact — a Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — several came to voice their support for the organization. Many said they came to learn more and left with a new perspective.

“I’ve changed my view a little bit,” said Virginia Pendleton, Scott’s wife and a Trump supporter, after the open forum. “I’m going to take them a little more seriously now.”

For PolitiFact, that’s the goal — and it’s using classic political campaign tactics like leafleting, Facebook and newspaper ad buys and event planning in three different states to accomplish it. But is that strategy going to work in changing right-wing voters’ opinions in the long run?

Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising and an expert in campaign strategy at Boston University, doesn’t think so.

“(PolitiFact is) basically doing retail politics, which is door-to-door, hand-to-hand combat,” he said. “The problem is, in politics, it’s rare that you convert someone over to the other side. In politics, you reinforce your base and go for those swing-type voters.”

PolitiFact survey on Guthrie Green
Cassandra Rigsby of Oklahoma City fills out a PolitiFact survey at Guthrie Green in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Sept. 28, 2017. The survey asks about demographic information such as age, party affiliation and gender. (Photo by Daniel Funke)

At one point, PolitiFact had that option. Sharockman told Poynter they once did some consulting with business students at the University of Missouri to learn more about how to build trust and create new audiences. The students recommended that PolitiFact double down on growing liberal readership by visiting communities that skew blue — the exact opposite of its current project in middle America.

“We were like, ‘No, we want to try to do objective, fair and credible journalism,’” Sharockman said. “This is an interesting exercise in that there’s definitely a risk — and certainly a good chance — this won’t work.”

The risk is a big one. Trump supporters seem to distrust fact-checking at higher rates than other voters and trust in media has hit historic lows. PolitiFact’s project could fizzle out by May, when its funding from the Knight Foundation runs out (Knight provides funding for Poynter). And Berkovitz isn’t very positive.

“They’re pissing in the wind,” he said. “They are trying to convince people that believe that the media is dishonest, at best, or corrupt, at worst, that … the media is in fact an honest broker, and that’s going to be tough.”

Then there’s the problem of location. On Thursday evening, between 60 and 100 people came to Dead Armadillo Brewery, a hip watering hole near downtown Tulsa, for a happy hour event hosted by PolitiFact. Dallas Ellmore, a 22-year-old recent Tulsa University graduate told Poynter that if PolitiFact really wanted to reach the most conservative voters, they should’ve stayed away from Oklahoma’s cities.

“If they want to get a really conservative view, they should’ve had this event in a place like Durant (Oklahoma),” he said. “Tulsa leans a little to the left comparatively.”

Others disagree. Ellmore’s friend and fellow TU graduate Richard Song, 22, said PolitiFact’s strategy in Oklahoma makes sense considering how interconnected the state is.

“They made the right move because people in Tulsa know people in other counties and could help spread the word,” he said.

One commonality that dominated PolitiFact’s trip to Tulsa was that a substantial portion of people had never heard of the fact-checking organization, one of the largest in the world. While several longtime PolitiFact fans attended the public forum and happy hour, many simply saw the events on Facebook and came out to learn more. In many ways, the success of PolitiFact’s project will come down to how its process and partnerships are perceived by local readers.

Mike Strain is managing editor at the Tulsa World, which, along with local NBC affiliate KJRH, is partnering with PolitiFact to publish fact checks about Oklahoma politicians. (The newspaper helped set up the meeting between the fact-checking organization and the Tulsa County GOP on Tuesday). Strain told Poynter that right-wing voters who may perceive the World and other local media as biased should recognize that they try their hardest to separate fact from opinion on a daily basis, as exhibited by the partnerships with PolitiFact.

“What I hope is that they will give it a chance,” he said. “Just be open-minded and give it a chance and know that our intentions are to present factual information fairly and in a balanced fashion. I think if they see that, then I do think it has an opportunity to succeed.”

And as for fact-checking, Strain thinks going local is a good start in rebuilding media trust.

“People want to trust others, but when given a reason to not trust others — whatever that reason may be — how can you counter that? To meet them where they are,” he said. 
 

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