Dr. Andrew Pieper (far right) talks with students Taylor Wilkes and Lauren Perkinson (left) and CBS anchor Scott Light.

What happens when students with an eye on careers as politicians and government officials enter the world of journalism?

This semester, students in political science professor Andrew Pieper’s class at Kennesaw State University stepped into roles as journalists as they produced “Truth Test,” a political fact-checking feature for CBS46 News in Atlanta. Pieper, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, talked about the lessons and challenges in covering the volatile Georgia races.

FCP logoFact-checking is a relatively niche topic in political journalism, one that your students might not have been familiar with before enrolling in your class. How did you define and explain the practice of political fact-checking to them?

I assigned a variety of fact-checking sites and articles for them to become familiar with before we had our first class session. These sites included PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and FactCheck.org.

In addition, we emphasized the empirical nature of our goals. In many ways I treated this as an extended social science research methods course where we would try, as much as possible, to take our own values, and the values of the statement, out of the equation, and view these statements as empirical puzzles to be solved. Like social scientists, we would be skeptical, and we would try to see if there were multiple answers to the question.

I do not have formal fact-checking training, and at the time I didn’t know about the API model for fact-checking I think I viewed this simply as an opportunity to apply social science methods to real-world examples of debatable assertions.

You’re a political scientist and your students are political science majors. What have been some of the surprises and/or difficulties in working in the world of journalism?

Dr. Andrew Pieper

Dr. Andrew Pieper

I think there are two major parts to this answer. The first is related to time constraints as we worked with CBS46 news. The second is related to ethics and protecting my students and the university.

The idea for our “TruthTest” team initially came from CBS46 during a spring 2014 meeting on a different project, a one-off, fact-check segment by students. I countered with a semester-long project, because it would be difficult to organize a one-time project.

I think there were major challenges for two separate entities to work together. Even within CBS46, I was working with the anchor, Scott Light, who would have to get things approved by his news director. There was a bit of red tape involved, which was difficult to deal with on tight (and rigid) deadlines. Most of the time things went quite well. However, there were times when the segment that aired seemed to have a different point of emphasis than the report we produced. I do not think this was part of any agenda, but rather a reality of the needs of television production and the nuance that appears on the printed page.

I think the students and I really learned about the differences between print research and televised research. The time constraints and context of television are simply things we do not deal with in the academic world.

So early on we decided that Thursday night would be the “TruthTest” night, and we built our schedule around that. The goal was to have the “statement” to check agreed upon by myself, Scott Light, and the news director on Fridays, with research to be conducted by students over the weekend.

I am sure the students, many of whom want to work in politics when they are done, were feeling uncomfortable.

It is also important to note that we are not journalists employed by independent organizations and businesses. I am an employee of the State of Georgia, and though I certainly did not receive any pressure to fact check one way or another, there is some internal dissonance about “how would this make Kennesaw State University look?” I am sure the students, many of whom want to work in politics when they are done, were feeling uncomfortable passing what they know to be independent, sound judgment on people who would not view their conclusions kindly. Our position, simply put, was different than many journalists.

I will also say that as non-journalists, we didn’t engage in the type of legwork and personal research in which regular journalists might have engaged. There were two reasons for this. First, I wanted to protect our students and Kennesaw State University. The students were not trained journalists, would not have known journalistic ethics, and I didn’t want to put them in vulnerable positions trying to extract information from people involved in politics and policymaking. Second, there simply was not time. A full-time journalist or fact checker might have jumped into his/her car to visit an agency and figure out with whom to speak about a particular issue or list of names, or ask a question about the difference between per-pupil spending and full-time equivalent spending. This is not possible for students taking classes and holding down other jobs.

As a political scientist, do you believe that more fact checking conducted by more news organizations will have an impact on the quality of rhetoric during campaign seasons?

I think there is no doubt that campaigns pay attention to fact checking, even if primarily to use it against their opponents! Even our relatively obscure two-minute segments solicited responses from Georgia candidates. I have friends who worked on the campaigns and in the governor’s office and they confirmed that our segments were discussed by those involved with the candidates.

As a political scientist, I am most interested in discovering how fact-check reports impact voters. Will a committed partisan rethink their position on an issue if fact checkers challenge their perspective? Are independents swayed by a fact-check report that shows a candidates’ primary policy claim is wrong? Unless we find evidence that the fact checking impacts voters (or that candidates think that they impact voters) I don’t know how it will impact candidate behavior. However, I think that fact checking certainly can create more educated voters, and provide shortcuts for politically uninformed voters to understand the complexity of issues better.

One thing I think we will see is an adjustment on the part of campaigns to create ads and talking points that are vaguer and less “fact check-able.” For instance, gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter ran an ad arguing that under Gov. Nathan Deal we had seen a larger five-year decline in education spending that at any point in history. His website had citations, but these are the types of claims I think politicians will stop making in response to fact checking. There are less specific — yet still effective — ways to say your opponent doesn’t support education enough. I am not sure this qualifies as improving the quality of rhetoric. It may mean fewer outlandish claims, but it may also lead to vague claims that are less prone to probing analysis.

What have you and your students found to be the most valuable tools and resources in researching the fact checks?

This is not even close — government data and websites! We became very good friends with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, among other agencies. For instance, I was shocked and impressed by the customer service we received with BLS. On no less than three occasions I would put in a request online for assistance, and receive a phone call from an actual person within five minutes. Although we probably would have figured out the data analysis question, it might have taken me or my students hours upon hours of messing things up to accomplish what we would in 10 minutes on the phone with assistants from various agencies. We could also be much more confident in our work after speaking with an expert.

Our work also revealed the benefits of federal government data collection and distribution over state level. Many of the state agencies, because they are more directly administered by gubernatorial appointees, seemed to passively hide relevant information, or make it difficult to find. It could be a resource issue as well. For instance, we wanted to find out the recent appointees to specific state boards or commissions, and could not even find who was appointed! It seems like basic paperwork that should be compiled and posted, but we had to manually do it using gubernatorial press releases, which were only archived to 2003. It seems clear that the federal government spends much more time compiling this data and information than do state and local.

I subscribe to the view that modern journalism sometimes falls into the trap of  ‘false balance,’ and if fact checking extends beyond the horse race and into the policy sphere we might correct some of that problem.

One semester is fairly short and you didn’t have much time before election day. Is there a fact-checking project you and your students wish you could have undertaken before the end of the course?

I know that for me personally, I wanted to explore gerrymandering and the non-representativeness of single-member districts. For instance, explaining how Democrats could win more votes in U.S. House races nationally in 2012, yet still be the minority party in the U.S. House by 33 seats. Put more locally, how do Georgia voters vote 53 percent Republican and 47 percent Democrat, but have a state legislature that is 70/30 and U.S. House delegation that is 10-4 Republican.

I think overall there needs to be a debate about whether fact checking should be limited to analyzing specific statements made by candidates, or to more broadly analyze the assumptions and policy positions of candidates, policymakers, and parties. I know that some journalists probably fear accusations of “taking sides” but I subscribe to the view that modern journalism sometimes falls into the trap of “false balance,”and if fact checking extends beyond the horse race and into the policy sphere we might correct some of that problem.

For more news, research and tips about accountability and fact-checking journalism, sign up for our weekly newsletter.


You might also be interested in: