Small newsroom, big election? Don’t be afraid of fact-checking

FCP logoFact-checking is hard. Political fact-checking is harder.

But often, hard things are worth doing. When done the right way, fact-checking is a rigorous, valuable process of research, investigation and interviewing.

MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow recently said that “any third-grader who can spell Google can do [fact checking] alone, without help.” Let’s chalk that up to hyperbole. Being a fact-checker during election season is an intense journalistic endeavor.

In a recent presentation, Missouri School of Journalism associate professor Scott Swafford mentioned fact-checking as a way local papers can improve election coverage. He added, “Depending on the issue or the assertion involved, these can be difficult — or relatively simple — to do.”

As a veteran of years of political campaign coverage at newspapers around the country, I have my own informed views on what kinds of political coverage are worth a news organization’s time and effort. Sometimes, obeying tradition and sticking with the familiar are the only explanation for the way we cover the election season.

For instance, take a hard look at the return-on-effort of the notoriously labor-intensive “voters guides.” Crunch the audience numbers. If you don’t like what you see, think about putting some of those resources toward a real fact-checking effort.

It’s not just my battleground experience that tells me fact-checking is good for business. Research shows that readers are impressed by high-quality fact checking and want more of it. Initial data gathered from dozens of publishers using the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News analytics tool shows that people spend more time reading such “accountability” stories than nearly any other type of reporting.

API’s fact-checking project offers a suggested set of guidelines and policies for newsrooms embarking on a fact-checking beat or project. We’ve even written a sample policy that any newsroom is welcome to use and modify for their own staffing and needs. (Contact us for a copy.)

So, since fact-checking can be complicated and it’s already October with Election Day looming, does this mean campaign fact-checking in 2014 is impossible?

No. While we hope you’ll put guidelines and policies in place for the next election, why not try publishing one or two fact checks before this Nov. 4?

Here are some ways you can jump-start your fact-checking and test the waters:

Use content. This nonprofit, non-partisan fact-checking organization is respected and renowned as one of the first political accountability journalism operations. And even better, they want you to steal their stuff. Check the site to determine if they’ve conducted a fact check in your area.

Use Associated Press content. The Associated Press conducts fact checks of key races around the country. If there’s one that could be of interest to your audience, try promoting it, publishing it, then measuring readership.

Consult your local journalism school. Advanced journalism students in Colorado and Kentucky, for instance, are researching and writing fact checks on local political ads and partnering with local news organizations to publish them.

Choose a “quick fact” and go for it. Be wise about the statements you choose to check. Don’t pick a tricky one that will lead you down a rabbit hole. Find the ubiquitous rhetoric in campaign ads and literature that have the most impact on your audience — for instance, jobs and health insurance. Follow the money. Fact-checking these topics will resonate with your audience and help them in their voting decisions.

Assign your most experienced hometown reporter. Beat reporters who are veterans of many local elections and know all the players are likely your best bet to quickly research and write a last-minute fact check. Read how Elizabeth Cleary, a reporter for the Taos (N.M.) News, leveraged her deep knowledge of the political landscape.

Use the best tools. While some databases can be especially clunky, good reporters are on the lookout for faster, more efficient tools. Peter Hancock of the Lawrence (Kan.) World-Journal found one that’s “remarkably user-friendly,” making it easier to write a well-documented fact check. And check API’s own highly curated resource list for the most newsy, useable campaign-related databases.

We’re happy to help any news organization with questions about starting or improving their fact-checking efforts. And if you have any tips for us or good fact-checks to share, please let us know.