As people become more entrenched in their Facebook newsfeed and digital bubbles, fact-checking takes on an increasing importance when it comes to discerning political rhetoric and reality.
That was the message of editors from the Pulitzer-prize winning website PolitiFact, who shared their story and process with Western Kentucky University students during a lecture Wednesday night.
After launching in 2007 with support from the Tampa Bay Times, the fact-checkers at PolitiFact set their sites on the looming 2008 presidential election. Editors Amy Hollyfield and Katie Sanders told their story to students and faculty gathered for the lecture, which is part of the annual Fleischaker/Greene Scholars in First Amendment Studies lecture series.
"We really got into this to bring truth to the voters," said Hollyfield, a deputy managing editor for politics and business with the Tampa Bay Times. "We believe that our important thing is to hold people accountable for what they say."
PolitiFact assigns six ratings to political claims from politicians and media personalities that range from true to "Pants on Fire," which it defines as a statement that's not only inaccurate but also ridiculous. It's completed about 13,000 fact-checks.
Between 2016 presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, PolitiFact gave Trump 53 "Pants on Fire" ratings for claims he made. It gave Clinton five.
Unlike other media outlets, Sanders said PolitiFact uses only on-the-record sources rather than anonymous sources. It doesn't publish "spin" from people making the claims either, Sanders said. Instead, fact-checkers start by asking for citations and then check them out.
Fact-checkers then try to arrive at a consensus about the statement and categorize it based on rating with specific definitions. Mostly true, for example, means the statement is true but needs more clarification or additional information.
In graphs comparing the accuracy of Trump's and Clinton's claims, just over 100 fact-checks scored in the "False" category for Trump, while about 60 of Clinton's fact-checks resulted in "Mostly True" ratings. The graphs looked at 313 fact-checks for Trump and 196 for Clinton. The editors said the gap came down to a higher volume of statements from Trump and more news coverage of Trump.
The difference could also come down to how the candidates ran their campaigns, the editors said.
Sanders described Clinton as "very traditional" and "Obamaesque" and someone who doesn't take a lot of rhetorical risks. While many of Clinton's claims are technically accurate, Hollyfield said, they distort the issue and miss key concepts.
Meanwhile, Trump was described as someone who shuns scripted talking points and takes murky positions on issues like raising the minimum wage.
During the presentation, Sanders and Hollyfield asked the audience to rate a claim from Clinton, charging that Trump "says organized crime runs wild on (Native American) reservations." Most in the audience rated the claim as mostly true or half true. PolitiFact found Clinton's claim about Trump to be "Half True," meaning it's partially accurate, but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Following the talk, Louisville sophomore Tommy Sullivan said it brought to mind the importance of probing journalism rather than neutral reporting where both sides are given equal weight. The problem with social media, he said, is that it acts like an echo chamber for only people who agree with each other.
Philosophy Professor Audrey Anton said the talk should have been insightful to students.
"I loved that they exposed the reality of deception to our students," she said. "I think it's human nature to believe what people say initially."
Anton described the election as the most untruthful and fact unfriendly election she's ever seen. In her experience, many students are frustrated with having to sort out the truth.
For Anton, organizations like PolitiFact "make it a little easier on us."
— Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.