Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

Coming soon: We aim our fact-checking at the pundits

Mr. Hannity, Ms. Maddow, Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Stewart: Meet PunditFact.com.

Tell your fellow media celebrities. Tell your favorite bloggers and columnists. The Tampa Bay Times wants to help your viewers, listeners and readers become better consumers in the fast-paced trade of political information.

PolitiFact, the Times' award-winning, fact-checking website, will launch a new project next month that widens the scope of our trademarked Truth-O-Meter. We will reach beyond politicians to regularly check statements found in newspaper columns, blogs and websites, as well as the claims made by guests and hosts of TV and radio talk shows.

In today's news media environment, there is great pressure to be first, to be provocative and to be popular. The consequence is the slinging of misinformation either by neglect or by design. And online, it is too easy to construct polished realities out of individual perceptions.

It's time to bring the independent scrutiny of fact-check journalism to our own industry.

Buoyed by the popularity of PolitiFact, the Times, in partnership with our owner, the Poynter Institute, and with financial backing from the Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund, has created PunditFact.com.

A dedicated staff of journalists will research claims by media figures and rate them on our Truth-O-Meter. As with PolitiFact, there will be no anonymous sniping, and we will list all the sources on which we base our rulings. We want you to see how we come to our judgments but ultimately expect you to come to your own.

Ford and the Democracy Fund, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, have put up more than $600,000 over two years to support this effort. Their goal: to improve the caliber of our national discourse. No small feat.

"Creating broad and nuanced media coverage of complex social issues is all the more difficult when the facts are often disregarded or ignored," said Jonathan Barzilay, director of the Freedom of Expression Unit at the Ford Foundation. "PunditFact is poised to play a critical part in reaffirming the role of facts in our civic dialogue."

"I just want news I can trust," said Craig Newmark, founder of the free online classified service craigslist. Newmark provided seed money to launch PunditFact, calling it "a real contribution in the direction of trustworthiness and accountability."

Since we launched PolitiFact in 2007, we have checked more than 7,700 claims, developed partnerships with newsrooms in 10 states, and established an affiliate in Australia. PolitiFact earned the Times a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting in 2009.

Our focus has been on the claims and promises of elected officials and candidates ranging from President Barack Obama and his challengers, to governors like Florida's Rick Scott and Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and even mayors including Tampa's Bob Buckhorn.

But from the beginning, readers asked us to check pundits.

It makes sense — most people get their political information from some form of media rather than directly from politicians. And despite polls that show a distrust of the media overall, singular statements get spread as truth at lightning speed with little scrutiny.

PolitiFact has occasionally checked bloggers and media figures, but that has been a fraction of our work. Some recent examples:

• Last month, as the health care fight reignited and consumers were learning how to sign up, an anonymous blogger wrote that business sage Warren Buffett now believed Obama­care should be scrapped altogether. Two respected conservative publications, the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal, published the item online as a new development. PolitiFact ruled it Pants on Fire, finding the claim to be a manipulation of a 3-year-old quote from Buffett before the law was even drafted. Buffett's people confirmed that the claim was untrue and that his support for Obamacare is unchanged.

• Mike Huckabee, the presidential candidate-turned-talk-show personality, declared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago that America's homicide rate is really no worse than Belgium's if you don't count gun deaths in places with strict gun control laws. Huckabee's math was wrong and the context flimsy. PolitiFact's rating: Pants on Fire.

• On CNN's new Crossfire show, the liberal host Van Jones offered up bad information about the NRA's political success in endorsing candidates, inaccurately suggesting its popularity is waning. (He acknowledged the mistake after PolitiFact rated the claim False.)

To get PunditFact started, we convened a group of industry leaders and academics last week at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. They embraced the project as filling an important need.

They reminded us that there can be no sacred cows (all of us are open to scrutiny) and counseled us to be ready for blowback. As former PolitiFact editor Bill Adair put it: "Fact-checking disrupts the status quo." (Adair, now a professor at Duke University, remains a contributing editor for PolitiFact.)

As we get started, we welcome your help in identifying possible statements to check.

The essential question fact-checkers ask is the same one each of us asks at home when we hear something a bit startling: "Hey, I wonder if that's true?"

By the way, many times the answer is yes. We come to fact-check work with curiosity, not a certainty of falsehood. Email us your ideas at [email protected]

The "Principles of the Truth-O-Meter" that we established in explaining our PolitiFact rulings begins with "words matter."

That sensibility is what we expect of politicians. Now we apply it to the media.

As for celebrities on the media stage: We seek no change in your beliefs or your partisanship. With PunditFact we simply want to offer consumers help in separating opinion from fact, passion from particulars. Our mission is accountability, not sanctimony.

We'll leave the latter to you.

Neil Brown can be reached at [email protected]

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