Journalists to politicians: ‘Stick to the facts’ [video]

“Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!” is a phrase children scream at each other whenever they think the other is lying.

Today when news and misinformation can quickly spread via social media, journalists are increasingly there to tell us when politicians are bending the truth.

This growing field of journalism is called political fact checking.

“We go to documents, we talk to experts, we review archived news coverage,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of Politifact. At the end of their investigation, the fact checkers will rate which politicians they think are telling the truth, which ones are stretching it, and which ones are making statements that they rate “Pants on Fire,” a nod to the children’s phrase to mean the politicians are lying.

Pinocchio doll (Shutterstock)
Someone is telling a lie. (Shutterstock)

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker assesses the accuracy of politicians’ statements using a range of one to four “Pinocchios,” named after the children’s storybook puppet whose nose would grow each time he lied. One Pinocchio represents “shading of the facts,” and four Pinocchios is an outright lie.

“Politicians will often make promises,” said Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker. “You can catalog those promises and whether they have begun to fulfill those promises. In the fact-checking trade it’s known as promise checking.”, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, considers itself a “consumer advocate” for voters and tries to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. It will stamp a large “FAKE” on claims it deems false.

All those involved in the trade stress that voters should be dubious of claims they see online and hear from pundits.

After seven years editing Politifact, Bill Adair is now at Duke University in North Carolina, where he’s started the Duke Reporters’ Lab, which tracks political fact-checking organizations worldwide. The lab reports 96 fact-checking organizations in 37 countries — a 50 percent increase from 2015. The countries include Brazil, South Korea, Tunisia and Ukraine.

Adair, the founder of Politifact, identifies two components necessary for political fact checking to work:

Nonpartisan fact checkers: “People will say ‘Can you recommend a good conservative fact checker?’ And I always say there’s no such thing, just as there’s no such thing as a good liberal fact checker,” Adair said.

Free press: “When you have freedom for journalists to write what they need to write,” said Adair, “I think it has the wonderful benefit of holding everyone accountable.”