PolitiFact founder discusses importance of fact-checking journalism during the 2016 election to students

Bill Adair, founder of Politifact, speaks to a crowd of over 100 people in the Parliamentary Room on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

Photo by Connor Burnard

Story by Robin Duff / Contributing writer 

Bill Adair, founder and contributing editor of the fact-checking website PolitiFact, spoke to a standing room only crowd on Thursday. The talk, titled “Pants on Fire: A Fact-Checker’s Tales from the 2016 Election,” focused on the rise of fact-checking and its evolution since PolitiFact was founded in 2007.

Adair is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University. He began PolitiFact in 2007 while working as the Washington bureau chief for the “Tampa Bay Times.”

“I began to see what the discourse was like,” Adair said, “How factual claims got made and how as reporters we passed them along without questioning whether something was true.”

PolitiFact won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election. It has now expanded to include 12 state level sites and rates accuracy of claims from public officials at the national, state and local levels.

Adair told Sidelines that there was “more fact-checking than ever” in the 2016 presidential election.

He also  discussed the need for fact-checking and how politicians and political groups can bypass traditional media outlets that act as filters for falsehoods.

“The partisan media has become a megaphone for false messages,” he said, “News and falsehoods go in, and the partisan media can often exaggerate them and broadcast them widely.”

The 2016 presidential election contained an unprecedented number of falsehoods, and this led to more fact-checking than ever.

“PolitiFact did 509 fact-checks in just in the [2016] presidential campaign,” Adair said. “Fact-checking sites had record traffic.”

Adair explained how fact-checking was presented in new ways during the election. News stations like CNN often included fact-checking in the chiron as they ran clips of the candidates making statements. Some journalists also included fact-checking in their articles, verifying or debunking a claim within the article itself.

“It’s important to get that instant fact-checking to prevent the falsehood from setting in,” Adair explained.

During and after the election, “alternative facts” have had a distinct polarizing effect between political parties.

“There’s no such thing as alternative facts,” Adair argues, “Facts are facts.” He went on to highlight the difference between a factual claim — something that is said to be true — and a fact — something that is actually true.

To close, Adair reflected on how fact-checking can improve for the future and the need to broaden its audience.

“Fact-checking is reaching a lot of people, but it needs to reach a lot more,” he said. “The audience for fact-checking is still relatively small, and there are many people who are not seeing fact-checks on a regular basis.”

Adair showed some new technology that allows for easier access to check facts, including a widget that allows fact-checks to be shared and categorized and an Amazon Echo app that will allow users to vocally search for fact-checks on specific statements. These technologies make fact-checking faster and more readily accessible.

“The dream is live, instant fact-checking,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that can take journalism to [a] new territory and provide an important service.”

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To contact News Editor Brinley Hineman, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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