Fact-checking Alabama

PolitiFact, Alabama Media Group find plenty of work to do


As Republicans head to the polls today for the nationally watched runoff election between U.S. Senate candidates Luther Strange and Roy Moore, PolitiFact has focused its Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking forces on Alabama.

But its mission isn't only about sorting out who's telling the truth and who isn't in the primary contest to replace Jeff Sessions, now U.S. attorney general. PolitiFact is researching what people think about the organization itself and other news media outlets in some of the politically reddest places in the country: Mobile, Ala.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Charleston, W.Va. The goal is to improve credibility all around.

PolitiFact has received a Knight Foundation grant and is working with local news organizations in the three cities to fact check in elections large and small. In Alabama, its partner is Alabama Media Group, which includes the AL.com website, a new social media news initiative called Reckon and three-day newspapers The Birmingham News, Press-Register (Mobile) and The Huntsville Times.

Members of the PolitiFact team visited Mobile a couple of weeks ago to gauge the level of trust in the news media as well as explain how the fact-checking organization works and how to spot fake news. About 50 people attended a forum at the Mobile Public Library to hear the presentation by PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan (a former Press-Register business reporter), Executive Director Aaron Sharockman and Deputy Editor Katie Sanders.

"In September and October of last year, more people were coming to our site (PolitiFact.com) on a daily and weekly basis than NFL.com and Disney.com," said Sharockman. There were 115 million page views in 2016.

All three team members emphasized that PolitiFact's credibility depends on being objective, consistent, independent and transparent. Its now-famous ratings system ranging from "True" to "Pants on Fire," is brought into play only after a campaign or pundit is asked to make their case for a statement, the statement is independently researched and all information is sourced.

"It's really important to choose the right facts to check," Holan said. The so-called "Ruling Statement" must be simple to understand and explain. Sweeping statements, opinions and speculative statements aren't considered. The team reviews news stories, transcripts, recordings and news releases.

"We get a lot of tips from readers. About a third of the fact checks we do are tips from readers. They email us; they tweet at us," Holan said.

Every source is listed in the final fact-check and every fact-check goes through multiple edits.

"We never, ever, quote people anonymously," Sanders said. "That doesn't mean that campaigns don't try to go off the record or on background. Sometimes people won't talk to us, and that's OK. We are very persistent. We find other sources when we need to."

Each fact check is subjected to four questions. It is literally true? Is there another way to read the statement? Did the person making the statement provide evidence? How has PolitiFact rated similar statements in the past?"

The rise of fake news over the last year is another component of the PolitiFact project. PolitiFact is working with Facebook to come up with a way of flagging fake news stories that get posted.

Early Tuesday morning, PolitiFact.com called out Breakingnews247.net for a bogus story claiming Carnival Cruise Lines was offering free cruises to hurricane victims. A Bloggers report that 12 hurricanes were headed for the United States also earned the blazing "Pants on Fire" rating.

Three fact checks came out of the Alabama Senate race, two from Luther Strange and one from Roy Moore. Many more came out of the weekend's heated national debate over whether NFL players should stand for the National Anthem, a debate touched off by President Trump at a rally for Strange.

In a column last week Sharockman pledged that PolitiFact would be checking on local races, too. The column was headlined, "Careful, Alabama politicians: The Truth-O-Meter is listening."

Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

PolitiFact, credibility
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