May 26, 2015

DFLWiener_720“Ben Wiener will be another vote against Medicare.” Or so claimed a 2012 campaign flier targeting the Republican candidate in a close Minnesota legislative race.

The claim was false, according to Minnesota Public Radio’s PoliGraph. As the political fact checker noted, the state House would have no real say over federal efforts to fix a funding gap in the Medicare Part D program — despite what the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party suggested in its mailing to voters in Wiener’s district, halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth.

For Catharine Richert, the reporter who has led PoliGraph for the past four years, that was just another day of campaign truth-squadding. But Richert’s source on that particular story was worth noting: an alert but unnamed public radio listener in Pine City, about an hour north of Minneapolis, who had forwarded the message to the station.

That listener is exactly the kind of person I think could help political fact checkers bolster their credibility — and perhaps even overcome the ideological blinders of those news consumers who may be hard-wired to reject the fact checkers’ findings.

In a new report for the American Press Institute, I examined how media fact checking affects the way people in politics behave. Sometimes that behavior involves politicians adapting their language to correct misstatements, or even avoiding misstatements by carefully vetting what they say in advance and preparing detailed background material in anticipation of being “PolitiFacted,” as some politicians put it. But I also found less positive effects, particularly the increasing “weaponization” and even distortion of media fact checks in ads and other messaging that try to use a relatively tame fact check to incinerate their opponents.

Politicians get away with these tactics because most news consumers view fact checking through red- and blue-colored glasses. A separate API research study on the effectiveness of fact checking described this as the “difficulty of overcoming partisan-driven motivated reasoning.” It found that “partisanship was the largest predictor of the political correction’s effectiveness,” as well as “the credibility of the fact­ checkers.”

That’s the reason for one of the recommendations in my report: Make news consumers a bigger part of the fact-checking process so that they feel like they have more of a stake in the analysis.

This means much more than asking readers, listeners and viewers to comment at the end of stories or on social media — or even asking for tips and story ideas. “Citizen journalists” do their best work when given specific assignments, and fact checkers should ask for their systematic help to collect the raw material needed to do their work — the ads, direct mail, social media messages and unscripted moments at public events.

To some extent, that’s already happening. Some TV and radio ads that fact checkers have analyzed were never announced to the press or posted on campaigns’ official online channels. Instead they came to the attention of the journalists because attentive TV viewers captured the videos and uploaded them to YouTube.

As political communication, like all media, becomes more fragmented and personally targeted, fact checkers will need to set up systems for reaching out to the voters on the receiving end of those messages just to keep up.

Many fact checkers across the country, national and local, already invite their audience to submit ideas and even send links and copies of materials they think deserve the reporters’ scrutiny. Voice of San Diego and Raleigh’s WRAL-TV, for instance, use Google forms to collect tips and ideas. “We can’t be everywhere,”  reporter Mark Binker writes in WRAL’s form.

This kind of outreach is important at Minnesota Public Radio too, said PoliGraph’s Richert — a former colleague of mine at Congressional Quarterly who got her start in fact checking as a part-timer for PolitiFact. For PoliGraph, Richert had access to a particularly handy tool for seeking input from her listeners: the Public Insight Network. Developed by MPR’s parent company, American Public Media, PIN is a database that helps journalists identify new and untapped sources, especially in their community.

In 2014, for instance, Richert said she used PIN — which is available for other news organizations to use too — to help cover the hard-fought 8th Congressional District, where Democrat Rick Nolan was ultimately re-elected by less than 4,000 votes. Zip code information in the database made it easy to email listeners in Nolan’s district and ask directly for their help collecting examples of direct mail, local newspaper ads and other campaign communication.

“We have the infrastructure to do it,” she said. “It was a no brainer.”

The station also has used on-air callouts in PoliGraph’s weekly radio segments during All Things Considered to ask for listeners to lend a hand.

I’m less sure that the public can be effective fact checkers on their own — but there are platforms that are testing that notion too. Sites such as the recently launched Fiskkit enlist readers to annotate and explain passages of content, including political statements. Menus of Fiskkit pages, for instance, let a reader mark up parts of statement they think are true or false and provide links and text of their own to make their case.

A key to any such venture will be developing models that prevent well-meaning “citizen fact checkers” from being overwhelmed by partisans, especially if political organizers decide these platforms can become productive grounds for their own efforts to persuade and recruit. Fiskkit is already anticipating this, as its creators explain in the site’s FAQ: “As we build and develop our platform, we will get better at identifying collusion, and we will build out tools for you to identify for yourself what opinions appear to be the result of collusion, whether it is explicit or tacit.”

Asking for audience help gathering and documenting campaign communication, regardless of any personal beliefs and political leanings, is far less fraught. Beside that, it also has potential benefits to campaign coverage beyond fact checking.

Richert noted how mailers submitted by listeners helped the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom track which legislative candidates were being targeted by which groups and generated thematic stories about how different issues were playing out in legislative races out across the state. After the 2012 election, a listener tip also led Richert to a 90-year-old woman who was being inundated with direct mail that used erroneous and exaggerated “Mediscare” claims to solicit money. Richert profiled the women as a starting point for an on-air and online story about the groups that send these kinds of fund-raising letters.

As other fact checkers who’ve tried to solicit material for their reporting can attest, neither quantity nor quality is always great. Richert said it has been hard to get listeners to record political ads and robocalls — something that would be very helpful for a radio report.

She also said her station had much more audience input in 2012 than it did during last year’s midterm election — a difference she attributed to high interest in the presidential race, as well as a statewide ballot in 2012 that included the entire legislature and controversial constitutional amendments on marriage of Voter ID requirements. “We were just inundated with stuff and it was great,” she said. Because of that, Richert said she hoped audience submissions would spike again in 2016.

To make the most of this kind of audience input, fact checkers need to give their new sources more prominence in their reporting. Asking a reader, viewer or listener what caught her eye about a particular piece of political communication is a way for fact checkers to attribute their source, and effectively encourage others in their audience to submit campaign material. But it also can show the fact checkers directly answering the kinds of questions real voters have when they see or hear a political message — which is what fact checking is really all about.

Fact checkers are much more used to decoding messages than sending them, but their role as voter advocate is an important story to tell. It’s also a story that’s harder for politicians and partisans to dismiss or distort when the voters themselves help tell it.

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Mark Stencel (@markstencel) is co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab, where he studies the spread and impact of political fact-checking. He is NPR's former managing…
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