Campaign Tracker

2016 winners: Election fact-checkers

Bill Adair
Bill Adair

If any career offers guaranteed job security this year it’s this: political fact-checker.

“If you talk to any of the fact-checkers, they’ll tell you they’re having record traffic,” says Bill Adair, a founder of Politifact. “Fact-checking has never been more important in a campaign than it is this year.”

Lots of candidates. Lots of claims.

▪ Is the federal government only sending refugees to states with Republican governors?

▪ Do we have more jobs in the solar industry than in oil?

▪ Are 75 percent of small businesses going to fire workers or reduce their hours because of Obamacare?

Those claims (by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio) have all been debunked by Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site created in 2007 by the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times).

This year the Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer are partnering with Politifact to monitor campaign ads and claims in North Carolina. The goal of all fact-checkers is to help voters cut through the fog of fallacies, distortions or hyperbole.

Keeping fact-checkers busy has been this year’s record number of presidential candidates and their seemingly endless debates.

“The volume of claims is higher than 2012 or 2008, and it’s really forced the fact-checkers to work longer hours and expand their staffs,” says Adair, now director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University.

All candidates can play fast and loose with the facts. But this year there’s one who stands out.

“There is one candidate getting looser with the truth, and that’s Donald Trump,” says Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “He is unabashedly spreading misinformation.”

In its annual review last December, Kiely’s organization singled out Trump as “King of Whoppers.”

“In the 12 years of FactCheck.org’s existence, we’ve never seen his match,” FactCheck wrote. “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.”

Politfact agrees. It awarded the GOP frontrunner its “2015 Lie of the Year” distinction.

The site uses its own scorecard, from “true” to “pants on fire.” Of 100 Trump statements it analyzed, just one – that Vladimir Putin has an 80 percent poll approval – was rated accurate. Fifty-nine were false or “mostly false.” Twenty were “pants on fire” false.

By contrast, 51 percent of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s statements were true or mostly true. Twenty-seven percent were false or mostly false. Just two – including a 2008 comment about landing in a Balkan war zone “under sniper fire” – earned a “pants on fire.”

“Trump’s truth-o-meter report card is pretty extraordinary in the brief history of fact-checking,” Adair says.

FactCheck.org saw its traffic double between 2011 and 2015, Kiely says. Like Politifact, its reports are picked up by other news organizations, many of which have seen their own staffs cut back.

Kiely says one of its post-debate fact-checks got 1.8 million page views over two days. That shows there’s an audience.

“We’re not going to change candidate’s behavior; that’s not what we signed up to do,” Kiely says. “Our mission is to help cut through the spin and distortion. I think that’s a good thing.”

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