Innovation in fact checking – SABEW19

Posted By David Wilhite on Sunday May 19, 2019

In a session moderated by NPR’s Pallavi Gogoi, fact checkers Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, Karen Mahabir, head of fact-checking at the Associated Press and Wyatt Buchanan, an editor at The Arizona Republic, each went into some of the innovative ways they’re keeping up with misinformation.














May, 2019

By Madeline Ackley
The Cronkite School

In the digital age, misinformation can travel at warp speed, making fact checking absolutely vital for an informed public.

Luckily, fact checkers in the industry have come prepared with incredible innovations they discussed at the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing spring conference in Phoenix on Saturday.

The session, moderated by NPR’s Pallavi Gogoi, featured a few of the news industry fact-checking heavyweights.

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, Karen Mahabir, head of fact-checking at the Associated Press and Wyatt Buchanan, an editor at The Arizona Republic each went into their methods of fact-checking and some of the innovative ways they’re keeping up with misinformation.

“Fact checking is at the heart of journalism,” Gogoi said as she introduced the panel.

Wyatt Buchanan, manages the Arizona Republic’s fact checking operation known as AZ Fact Check, which was modeled after Adair’s PolitiFact — a site which assesses political claims and assigns them a rating based on their level of truthfulness.

The version Buchanan works with focuses more heavily on issues relevant to the state of Arizona. Like PolitiFact, the site will take on a dubious claim, analyze the claim and lets the readers know if it’s true, false or simply in need of context—and to what degree.

Unlike PolitiFact, AZ Fact Check now includes a video component to make the site more engaging and social-media friendly.

Karen Mahabir does something similar at the Associated Press without assigning a rating.

“One of the things we do is get right to the heart of what we’re saying about the claim immediately,” Mahabir said.

She and her team neatly lay out the claim, its context and origins in a way that’s organized similar to a news article.

“We really are looking at all public figures…candidates for local office, the governor of a state, the president,” Mahabir said. “Then we drill down into that claim to determine if it true if it’s false or it’s somewhere in the middle.”

Mahabir also laid out some tips for how to check fact effectively, starting with a journalists own reporting.

“Put everything away for a second, and just tell me verbally in two sentences what you would say about that claim, said Mahabir. “Generally, if folks can do that, they have something to move forward with.”

Successful fact checking is a collaborative effort, said Mahabir. It requires good sourcing, context and a willingness to double and triple check your own work.

“It’s so, so, so important to empower your readers or your viewers or your listeners of the source of where that material came from so that if they wanted to they could go back and look at those primary documents,” said Mahabir.

Bill Adair, the PolitiFact founder, currently teaching at Duke University, is now working on something he was told would be impossible.

“When I started PolitiFact in 2007 people started very quickly to say wouldn’t it be cool if when a campaign commercial came on TV or there was a speech,  a fact check popped up immediately..and that was a great dream,” said Adair.

Time and time again he revisited the idea, but it wasn’t until he began working on a project with Google that was essentially a “dewey decimal system” of misinformation, that the possibility became a reality.

Because public figures often repeat claims again and again, the technology attempts to match what is being said to claims that have been made at an earlier date. It’s essentially an aggregator of claims that have already been analyzed by fact checkers online.

“It’s not telling you what the person just said is false” but “similar to a fact check that was [made] before,” said Adair.

Sometimes it works and other times it fails hilariously, but Adair believes he is coming closer and closer to debunking false claims in real time.  

“Think of it more as annotation…here is some related information about what they just said. That has tremendous value… Politicians are more careful about what they say when they know they’re being fact checked,” said Adair.

Fact checking may not be an exact science just yet, but journalists and researchers are making great strides in holding public figures accountable to the truth.

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