August 8, 2012

Steven Ginsberg saw the future of fact-checking while listening to a politician tell lies in Iowa last summer.

“It was one of those small parking lot affairs outside a sports bar and the candidate was there speaking to about 30 people,” said Ginsberg, The Washington Post’s national political editor. “For about 45 minutes he said a lot of things that I knew to not be true, and nobody else there knew that.”

Ginsberg thought there must be a way to offer people in the crowd a real-time accounting of the politician’s misstatements. He called Cory Haik, the Post’s executive producer for digital news, and outlined the issue. That resulted in a submission to the Knight News Challenge for a project called TruthTeller, which ultimately wasn’t selected.

Last week the project was given new life when Knight announced that TruthTeller was one of five media innovation projects to receive funding as part of its new Prototype Fund.

Using technology to fight misinformation

Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation, said the foundation’s interest in fact-checking is the result of a few factors. With fewer journalists working in large newsrooms, there are fewer people vetting statements by politicians and public figures. But there are arguably more claims and “facts” being spread than ever before.

Maness said it’s easier than ever to produce content, but “wading through that feels like a tidal wave of this stuff washing over us, and so [there’s value in] trying to determine what is real and what isn’t.”

On top of that, an amazing amount of money is being spent this year on political advertising at the national, state and local level. This advertising often includes misleading or blatantly false information. Maness said it’s not possible to match that dollar-for-dollar with fact checking, but technology can help level the playing field.

“The exciting thing is there’s technology that can replace the money with efficiency,” he said.

Scaled back expectations

About the money: The Post originally asked the News Challenge for $700,000. It received $50,000 from the Prototype Fund. So the early goals for TruthTeller have been adjusted from what Ginsberg, Haik and others initially outlined.

They had envisioned a phone app that would parse audio from a speech or TV ad and determine whether it was true or false. The system would use speech-to-text technology to gather the audio and compare it against a database of statements, stats and other data that had been fact-checked. If someone uttered a lie that, for example, had already been given several Pinocchios by the Post’s Fact Checker blog, the app would report back to the user: That’s not true; here are the details.

That was the $700,000 version. So what can we expect for 50 grand? Haik said the initial goal is to build that database of fact-checks and make it available to Post journalists. This would speed up the process of fact-checking within the organization.

If things go well, Haik said, the Post may have something public-facing for the presidential debates. This could take the form of “a running stream alongside video of somebody talking” that would display fact-checks related to statements being made.

“It would be like an annotation layer,” Haik said. “The goal is to get closer to … real-time than what have now. It’s about robots helping us to do better journalism — but still with journalists.”

They plan to partner with Dan Schultz, a recent MIT Media Lab graduate who has been working on a related project. Truth Goggles would be a Web browser plugin that would alert a user if the content they’re reading includes statements that have been checked by PolitiFact or another entity. Schultz will make use of the PolitiFact API and other available databases to assemble a body of checked facts.

Along with similar names, TruthTeller and Truth Goggles share the goal of taking fact-checking content beyond blogs and into new applications.

For now, Haik said the Knight money will enable them to hire someone to code the prototype.

“We’ve got the expertise for the most part in the room as far as architecture,” she said. “So we need to hire a developer, and also some of the money will go toward researching and stuffing the database, if you will.”

If the prototype is successful, additional Knight funding is available to take things further. Haik hopes the project eventually will meet the lofty goals and functionality outlined on the original News Challenge proposal.

“What we’re really trying to build is a tool that gets at doing better journalism,” she said. “This is for truth-seekers at large.”

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Craig Silverman ( 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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