The 2016 presidential election has been marked by several head-spinning “firsts” — people and practices not seen in the history of U.S. politics.

One of those is the surge of accountability reporting by journalists, particularly political fact-checking. Never before has fact-checking been such a player in U.S. presidential elections.

At news organizations from NPR to Univision to the Washington Post, fact-checking prompted record audience numbers. Candidates and pundits relentlessly invoked fact-checkers; an unusual debate about fact-checking the debates dominated social media. The number of media organizations producing political fact-checks increased at an unprecedented rate.

But as we’ve examined traditional political fact-checking for the past three years — especially during the 2016 campaign — we’ve also decided our work needs to take a bit of a turn.

This is impressive, but it’s raised a logical question: Was fact-checking successful in this election cycle?

At the risk of sounding evasive, the answer depends on another question: How do you define success? Like nearly everything else in this election, how fact-checking did or didn’t affect the decisions of voters and the behavior of politicians will be pondered and researched for years to come.

That’s one of the questions the American Press Institute, through its accountability journalism program, will continue to study in a number of ways including new research and a post-election fact-checking conference in January in Washington, D.C. (Keep reading to find out how you can be involved.)

But as we’ve examined traditional political fact-checking for the past three years — especially during the 2016 campaign — we’ve also decided our work needs to take a bit of a turn.

The limits of traditional fact-checking

As we’ve seen during this election and through our own research, fact-checking of politicians’ statements can be divisive. So divisive, in fact, that entire audiences can dismiss it.

What would be the result, then, if partisan personalities were removed from fact-checking? What if the traditional “he lied, she lied” message was replaced by a focus on issues — the essential facts citizens need to know so they better understand the key issues in their communities?

What if the traditional “he lied, she lied” message was replaced by a focus on issues?

That type of reporting will require an intense effort by journalists to listen and to gather information. What are the common misperceptions about those key community issues? What kinds of questions are you hearing? What don’t readers — and journalists, for that matter — know or understand about civic life in their communities?

Because this type of fact-checking is focused more on citizens and less on candidates or campaigns, it moves beyond partisanship and potentially reaches a more receptive audience because it’s less divisive. While statements by political actors still may be in the mix, the framing is factual information about an issue.5581797977_381c46a718_z

Through our Metrics for News data, we know that accountability reporting — which encompasses fact-checking — ranks at the top of readers’ favorite and most engaging types of content. With a two-year grant from the Democracy Fund, we’re developing and exploring more projects centered on accountability — and we’re looking for journalism partners.

Our invitation to you

Are you interested in extending the accountability journalism you produced during the presidential elections? Or maybe your newsroom hasn’t done this type of journalism, or very little of it, and you’d like to explore its potential. Either way, we’d like to work with you.

Here are some of our accountability-related projects that are planned or underway:

  • A report on the top characteristics of the effective accountability journalist. We’ve studied the work and skills of some of the top political/accountability reporters in the country, and our report will be published soon. Let us know if you’d like us to send you a copy of the report directly.
  • A post-election event on Jan. 31, 2017, at the National Press Club. We’ll take a close look at fact-checking and accountability journalism during the 2016 elections, examining best practices and solutions. E-mail us for details.
  • A follow-up to our 2015 pre-campaign report on the political response to fact-checking. This report will be published in early 2017.
  • New research on various aspects of the impact and effectiveness of fact-checking. Preliminary findings will be released in January.
  • An examination of “explainer” journalism: its growth, impact and potential. We’d like to hear about your experiences with explainers.
  • Re-imagining the role of social media and the information ecosystem in the research and distribution of factual reporting. Tell us if you’re interested in helping with this topic.

We’re interested in hearing from you on these or any other related issues. Let us know if you want to be involved in our accountability efforts, and how we can help you with yours.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director, American Press Institute

Jeff Sonderman, deputy director, American Press Institute

Jane Elizabeth, senior manager, accountability journalism program, American Press Institute.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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