January 9, 2012

After the 1993 debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and billionaire former presidential candidate Ross Perot on the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the AP moved a story headlined, “Perot and Gore Agree on One Thing: The Other Stretched the Facts a Bit.” The report provided an accounting of the misstatements made by both men.

This form of fact checking is today a standard way news organizations deal with a debate or major political speech. Back in 1993, however, it was rare.

AP began checking the facts in political ads during the 1992 election, but the debate story marked a new entry into the world of fact checking. Now, AP publishes several “Fact Check” pieces a month, making it one of the major producers of public fact checking. Since 2007, AP has published over 200 fact checks. Between September 7 and the end of December 2011 alone, it produced 27 of them. This past weekend it was again on duty, checking the statements made during a pair of GOP debates.

With a presidential election year under way and months of major speeches, debates and campaign claims to come, we can expect AP to increase its already growing public fact checking efforts. (I call it “public fact checking” to distinguish it from the process used internally at magazines and other publications. Read more about the growth in public fact checking in this previous piece.)

The approach of knocking down falsehoods is now also being incorporated into other areas of coverage, according to Cal Woodward, a reporter and editor in AP’s Washington bureau who writes a significant number of political fact checks.

“There is and has been an effort to integrate this kind of accountability reporting … outside of politics and into spot stories, hard news stories as well,” he said. “Why would you let somebody get away with a misstatement and not deal with it?”

Jim Drinkard, AP’s accountability editor in Washington, oversees the political and government fact checks. He agreed the checking approach has spread to other beats and bureaus.

“We’ve sought to spread the accountability ethos beyond Washington and throughout the AP,” he said by email. “State bureaus and regional desks have been producing these kinds of stories as well. And we’ve had fact-check pieces in the past year originating in Jerusalem, Dublin and Buenos Aires, which as far as I know is a capability unique to AP.”

Drinkard pointed to a recent AP story by Dina Cappiello about a new EPA rule that will lead to the shutdown of some coal-fired power plants.

“Critics, including some in the power industry and some GOP presidential candidates, had said that would mean power blackouts,” he said. “But Dina surveyed affected utilities and debunked that claim.”

Growth of Checking

Still, the political and public policy beats are the primary focus of fact checks.

Drinkard said fact check pieces became a priority in 2008 when the Washington bureau created an “accountability initiative” at the direction of senior AP leadership.

“The idea of promoting stories that expose government dysfunction, illuminate lobbying, identify broken promises and check facts wasn’t meant as an end in itself, but rather as a way to further inculcate these news values into everything we do,” he said.

AP brought in FactCheck.org’s Brooks Jackson for a training seminar, and distributed copies of his and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book, “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.”

Continuing a practice established in 2008, every month Drinkard highlights “good examples of such reporting in a memo to the staff, including stories that aren’t ‘branded’ as fact checks but nevertheless contain fact-check elements.”

As for results, Woodward and Drinkard said fact check pieces often rank among the most used and popular pieces of AP content.

“In the recent GOP presidential debates, for example, the fact checks often persist on Twitter and on Yahoo’s ‘most popular’ lists long after they’re published, sometimes for days,” Drinkard said.

The AP Tone and Approach

Though it was published 15 years before the AP accountability initiative, the NAFTA debate fact check from 1993 contain hints of what we see today.

“Al Gore and Ross Perot both complained that the other stretched the truth,” it began. “At least on that one point, both were right.”

That kind of straightforward, and slightly playful, tone is still present in AP fact checks. Because a fact check is by definition making calls and declarations, it often adopts a more direct tone than a typical piece of reporting.

Here’s the lead of a fact check written by Woodward and a colleague in November 2011:

To hear some Republican presidential candidates tell it, the president’s pen is a magic wand that can make “Obamacare” vanish in one day and sweep in cheaper health care, economic growth and lots of jobs in businesses freed from the health care law’s heavy hand.

But there is no such fairy dust in Washington.

Of course, being so declarative leaves ample room for debate and dissension. AP often finds its own fact checks getting fact checked by others. For example, Media Matters for America, the left-leaning media monitoring organization, took AP to task for a fact check of remarks made by Obama. A December AP fact check also drew the ire of The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, who wrote:

The dispatch, by Anne Gearan, is titled “Fact Check: Israel Embassy Promise May Be Empty.” It exemplifies what is wrong with the “fact check” genre, so much so that it shows the AP literally doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fact.”

In both cases, the criticism was that AP was checking something that wasn’t a verifiable fact. That concern is echoed in a recent piece by Greg Marx at Columbia Journalism Review. He looked at AP, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact and found they often go wrong by checking subjective statements. (Disclosure: PolitiFact is run by the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute.)

Critics abound, but Woodward said he rarely hears push back from politicians and campaigns. That used to be the norm.

“I can remember doing this in ‘99 and 2000 and the campaigns did not know why we were doing this and they were furious,” he said. “It was so out of place to them that we would referee a claim and reach a conclusion.”

I asked him to explain how he approaches writing an AP fact check.

“The first thing I think [about] is what we don’t want to do,” he said. “You don’t want to assign motive to a misstatement … you don’t want to be nasty about it or over the top. You need to realize that people making misstatements are not always doing it intentionally. It’s the nature of the debate or the campaign that [people are] boiling things down to sound bytes. So sometimes all we’re doing is explaining the context.”

Woodward also spoke about the need to try and balance the number of checks being done about politicians and political parties.

“You obviously want some balance,” he said, though he also noted that, “Obama is clearly the most fact checked president [ever].”

Checking the Palin Book

Perhaps the most famous, and criticized, AP fact check came after the news organization acquired an early copy of Sarah Palin’s first book, “Going Rogue.”

In addition to other reporting about the book, AP published a fact check piece by Woodward.

Along with many others, Palin herself criticized the effort on Facebook by focusing on the fact that 10 AP reporters were listed as contributors in addition to the Woodward byline:

We’ve heard 11 writers are engaged in this opposition research, er, ‘fact checking’ research! Imagine that – 11 AP reporters dedicating time and resources to tearing up the book, instead of using the time and resources to ‘fact check’ what’s going on with Sheik Mohammed’s trial, Pelosi’s health care takeover costs, Hasan’s associations, etc. Amazing.

“We got an earful on that one,” Woodward said. “Is that bad to bring in as much expertise as we could? It certainly had more impact.”

“The Palin book fact check did indeed trigger a vociferous response,” Drinkard said. “… We also pointed out that by the time that piece ran, we had already produced at least 35 separate stories since Obama took office examining the new president’s missed facts, spin and broken promises.”

Drinkard also cited this statement released by AP that specifically addressed the byline issue:

One byline appeared on AP’s Fact Check. Acting with AP’s trademark speed, other staffers with knowledge of specific areas covered in the book (Alaska governorship and the ’08 campaign, for example) contributed in varying degrees to help prepare the Fact Check, and — in keeping with AP style — they were listed at the end of the Friday piece. Some of the 11 were minimally involved.

These days, AP will regularly list multiple contributors on a fact check; they consider their collaborative approach to checking a competitive advantage.

Collaborating, Leveraging Resources

During a major event or speech, AP will have beat reporters watching to catch any notable misstatements that relate to their area of expertise.

“We have anywhere from three to six or more people who are sitting at home or in the office watching a debate,” he said. “When they hear something they’ll flag it and tell my editor [Drinkard], who is the gatekeeper, and he will make a call if we think it’s strong enough to be developed. Sometimes they give me an item that’s pretty much already written, and I’ll slip it in.”

In addition to beat reporters, AP will also reach out to local bureaus for help with verification.

“We have people around the world, so for example when a politician says something about the Chilean social security model and describes it incorrectly by saying it’s optional, we can ask our people in Chile how it works and they can tell us it’s mandatory,” Woodward said.

The idea is to match expertise to the statements being checked. That saves time, since a reporter doesn’t need to figure out where to look for quality information or sources. It also should help AP get its fact checks correct. Not surprisingly, Woodward emphasized that’s always a top priority.

“You want to be fair and be really careful about being right,” he said.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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