Many political advertisements, viral emails, and Internet articles say anything to make their point. Indeed, many political ads and newspaper and Internet stories can be false, distorted, and misleading. FactCheck (www.FactCheck.org) aims to separate fact from fiction and truth from exaggeration.
FactCheck was started by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center in December 2003 in Washington DC (but will be moving to Philadelphia around the November election). Its original mission was covering "political misinformation on TV," explained Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck and a former AP, Wall Street Journal, and CNN reporter.
The Annenberg Center thought political ads such as the controversial Willie Horton commercial that helped elect George H. Bush in 1998 were swaying elections. FactCheck would help the populace critique each message. Over the years FactCheck has evolved into covering misleading information on "the Internet, newspaper, radio, everything," Jackson said.
Jackson has the perfect background to lead Fact Check since he was the lead correspondent for Ad Watch on CNN, which critiqued political ads. Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamisen, the director of the Annenberg Center, created the site, which helps execute Annenberg's objectives to explore political communication and enhance civic discourse.
Though some critics portray FactCheck as liberal, it strives to be non-partisan. A survey of 15,000 of its subscribers revealed that 91% thought it was free of political bias. For example, a recent FactCheck posting criticized Sarah Palin and Al Gore for "engaging in some distortions and have been rightly called out by experts in the field."
Jackson describes the site as a "watchdog or consumer advocate. We're like the Consumer Reports of politics," he said. It holds politicians accountable for their actions and statements. Its audience of 100,000 unique daily visitors is "baffled or perplexed when they read dubious or contradictory statements and don't know what's right or wrong," he added.
FactCheck concentrates on national issues and rarely delves into state or local topics. Because of the notoriety of Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, FactCheck has written about her gubernatorial run.
Some of the biggest whoppers that FactCheck has unraveled include a Washington Times reporter who quoted Abraham Lincoln saying that anyone who gives encouragement to the enemy should be hanged. When FactCheck contacted the reporter, he admitted that Lincoln never said it and his editors added the inaccurate quotation. Sarah Palin's denying that she supported the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska was another major distortion.
FactCheck is organized into Home, Articles, the Wire, Ask FactCheck, and Archives. The Home section includes detailed articles exploring misleading news articles, viral emails, and ads. In early May, the lead articles included "Mis-Tweets on Twitter," about how politicians spread misinformation, and "Malarkey About Health Care," about the distortions and exaggerations regarding the healthcare bill. Jackson says health care produced more distorted stories than any other issue in his nearly seven years at FactCheck.
The Wire covers timely stories such as recent claims about rising crime in Arizona made by Rep. Haworth (Republican of Arizona, who is running for governor in Arizona) on Face the Nation. FactCheck researched statistics on how violent crime and property crime were, in fact, slowing down in the state. Yet issues are never black and white because burglaries were actually increasing in certain areas of Arizona.
FactCheck's organization of articles could be improved. Articles move from one story to another chronologically but often lack any coherence. Hence, a story on the controversial health care bill is followed by one about disputations between current and former vice presidents Biden and Cheney, and segues into an analysis of the Tea Party--without any logical connection or topic headings. Why couldn't it cluster articles in themes?
Its major competition comes from Politifact (www.politifact.com), which is run by St. Petersburg Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair. Politifact earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and aims to uncover similar political distortions. Jackson admitted that some of Politifact's glib Truth-o-Meter and Pants on Fire ratings wouldn't work on FactCheck, which is connected to the Annenberg Center and must maintain more intellectual heft.
Because it is non-profit, FactCheck doesn't have to gain corporate sponsorship or appeal to advertisers but must appeal to readers. Asked how it decides which stories to pursue, Jackson replied, "We look for stories that are being talked about the most." It has 85,000 subscribers who receive the center column via email plus a weekly updates of Factcheck stories.
Ironically, since it covers news stories, FactCheck doesn't have deadlines or a fixed publication schedule. Some days no new story is posted. "We post something when we're sure it's right. Sometimes it can take days to get to the bottom of a situation," Jackson said.
The site is extremely interactive. Readers submit questions on the Ask FactCheck section, often asking for links to stories. Often viral emails submitted by readers with distorted facts are turned into stories by its reporters on the site.
Because of the 24/7 news cycle, the role of the journalist has changed. "Journalists used to be gatekeepers, but now there are no gates and no fences," Jackson said. Hence FactCheck holds politicians accountable, makes sure Internet articles aren't fabricated, and confirms that reporters' facts are reliable and not distorted.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.