Seeking to bring context to politics, NPR launches fact-checking feature

Acknowledging what will undoubtedly become a major theme of 2016 campaign coverage, NPR on Thursday launched "Break It Down," a regular feature devoted to fact-checking comments made by politicians including the massive field of presidential hopefuls.

The first edition, which opened with a hip-hop beat and a remix of Ronald Reagan's now-famous rebuke to Jimmy Carter ("There you go again"), dissected the back-and-forth between Donald Trump and several other candidates in the recent Republican debate on CNN. The verdict? Accusations and personal attacks hurled across the debate stage aren't always cut-and-dried.

"OK, so there's some truth to it, but it's a complicated story," said Steve Inskeep, host of "Morning Edition."

That's the kind of nuance NPR is seeking to bring to its politics coverage with "Break It Down," which was dreamed up by NPR's politics team and germinated in Storytelling Lab, the network's incubator for promising new projects. The idea behind the feature is to go beyond standard horserace narrative and add a layer of analysis to fast-paced political coverage, said Domenico Montanaro, NPR's lead editor for politics and digital audience.

"In an era where so much of politics is based on spin, and when you have a 24/7 news cycle that moves so quickly, I think there's actually room to slow things down," Montanaro said. "You can take something that's stuck with people and back up a little bit and say, 'OK, let's break this down. Somebody said XYZ, let's inform our audience.' Because I think people are being pummeled with information that's coming really quickly."

NPR's feature debuts as many news outlets are devoting an increasing amount of resources to verifying talking points and scrutinizing spin. When launched last year, co-founder Ezra Klein christened the explainer site with a note declaring war on confirmation bias. Organizations like The Washington Post and PolitiFact are using annotation tools to cut through the noise and clear up muddy assertions. Nonprofits have also joined in on the clarification craze, with institutions like the American Press Institute and Poynter launching separate initiatives devoted to fact-checking.

"Break It Down" fits into NPR's larger plan to cover politics with context as the 2016 election approaches; the network has also hired a demography reporter and a reporter to cover the intersection of pop culture and politics, Montanaro said.

NPR hasn't mapped out a regular schedule for "Break It Down," although the wide field of presidential contenders means that reporters Danielle Kurtzleben and Scott Horsley will likely have plenty of statements to verify and explain. They and their colleagues on the politics desk will continue to flag questionable statements and check facts online and in NPR's various broadcasts.

"I think that there will be plenty of opportunities," Montanaro said.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.


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