True or false? Fact or Fiction? Fact-checkers have never been more busy than they have been during the Presidential Election. Distortions of the truth, and in some cases, outright lies, are now so common that teams of fact-checkers and journalists must analyze everything a politician says.
Fact-checkers are reporters who specialize in making sure anything said or written in speeches, debates, social media posts, public addresses, or articles are true and to provide context. Fact-checking can either be an independent job or part of a journalist’s broader duties, which varies from outlet to outlet. The New Yorker, for example, has a team entirely dedicated to fact-checking, who work together to examine sources for factual errors, exaggerations, lack of context, and to trace down the source of each fact. Other outlets assign specialized reporters to specific topics, like a political journalist to a presidential debate.
In the case of a live major address, like a presidential debate, fact-checkers will fact-check in real time. The teams research topics ahead of time to be as prepared as possible to spot something shady. Then, when the live address starts, computers can generate “rough log” transcripts, which fact-checkers can use to keep track of what’s been said. If the team spots a suspected lie, they can use their collective knowledge to confirm or deny the fact. Once the fact-check report is written, it passes through producers, editors, and a standards department before it makes its way onto your TV screen. The process for articles is mostly the same: once written, the article will circulate through editors and the standards department before posting.
Major fact-checking outlets, such as Politifact and FactCheck.org, first contact the source of the claim. If an elected official, for example, makes a claim that the outlet suspects to be false, they would react out to the official’s office for a source to back up the claim. If that fails, FactCheck.org reporters rely on nonpartisan data sources, like government or state agencies. They may also cite other news articles, or on-record interviews with reporters and experts.
Politifact and The Washington Post Fact Checker use a rating system so readers can easily understand how much of the claim is true or false. Politifact’s rating system is called the “Truth-o-meter”, which has six ratings ranging from “True – the statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing” to “Pants on Fire – the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.” Politifact rates only 3% of Donald Trump’s statements to be “true”, and 36% (The majority) of his statements to be “false”, which is one step below “Pants on Fire”. A whopping 16% of his statements have been deemed “Pants on Fire” level untrue. On the other hand, the majority of Joe Biden’s statements (23%) are “Mostly true – the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information”. Only 3% of Biden’s statements are rated “Pants on Fire.” The Post’s rating system is based on Pinnochio, the puppet whose nose grew longer with every lie he told. False claims can be assigned up to four Pinnochios, depending on how untrue the claim is found to be.