The fact-checking service is lining up relationships with all 25 of Hearst’s news-producing stations and has even broader ambitions. Other broadcasters with PolitiFact deals include Cox and Gannett.
Local TV news viewers who want help sorting fact from fiction this election year are going to get it in some markets thanks to a growing number of agreements between broadcasters and the fact-checking news organization PolitiFact.
Although PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times, has worked with cable channels like CNN and MSNBC since its inception, the news service is forging new relationships with local broadcasters.
PolitiFact’s popular Truth-O-Meter — a graphic gauge that measures the accuracy of politicians’ statements — soon will appear on all 25 news-producing Hearst stations during regular newscasts.
Hearst’s Washington bureau will produce stories based on fact checking conducted by PolitFact. The stories will focus on national and local elections, says Candy Altman, Hearst Television’s VP of news.
PolitiFact’s easy-to-understand formula is a good means of reaching viewers, she says. “People like to know what’s true and what’s not.
“This is part of our overall goal to help viewers make informed choices,” Altman says. “There are many statements out there that certainly need vetting and PolitiFact is doing a very good job of doing that.”
Hearst is not the only broadcaster getting into the PolitiFact game. WSB, the Cox-owned ABC affiliate in Atlanta (DMA 9), also airs segments under the PolitiFact brand in a partnership with the Cox-owned Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Two Gannett-owned stations in Florida — WTSP, the CBS affiliate in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota (DMA 14) and WJXX, the ABC affiliate in Jacksonville (DMA 50) — have also signed agreements with PolitiFact, says its editor and founder, Bill Adair.
Because PolitiFact, which is based in Washington, covers primarily national issues, partnerships with local news outlets allow PolitiFact to spread its wings, says Adair.
Under licensing agreements, PolitiFact provides its local partners training in PolitiFact-style fact checking, the PolitiFact brand and its trusty, TV-friendly Truth-O-Meter, which rates the veracity of political rhetoric from “True” to “Pants on Fire!”
“The Truth-O-Meter makes for great television because it is both lively and substantive,” Adair says. “It captures in a very easy to understand way the accuracy of a political claim.”
In turn, the local media partners get the exclusive right to create their own state-specific PolitiFact; they also get to air PolitiFact-style content, create further partnerships with other local media and profit from ad sales on their websites, Adair says.
PolitiFact’s partnerships with newspapers have existed since 2009, two years after its creation, when the Austin American-Statesman approached the organization to create a PolitiFact Texas, Adair says. The service now has 10 newspapers partners.
Adair says he expects the number of broadcaster franchisees to rise.
The way WSB incorporates PolitiFact into its newscasts is market specific, and stems from its relationship with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — which is also owned by Cox and the primary PolitiFact partner in Georgia.
WSB’s stories follow the process the PolitiFact-trained Journal-Constitution reporters go through in debunking political oratory, says News Director Mike Dreaden.
They show the Journal-Constitution’s panel of fact-checkers sitting around a table, assessing a particular political statement and coming to their conclusion. “We are not part of that process. We are observers,” Dreaden says.
WSB airs only the PolitiFact stories that make sense for TV, he says. “We get a good story out of it and they get their franchise on TV.”
Gannett would not elaborate on its plans for its new agreement between PolitiFact and its Florida stations, which is still getting underway.
Barbara Cochran, the longtime Washington TV journalist and industry advocate, says getting a PolitiFact franchise seems to make sense. Assessing the truth of political rhetoric is part of what TV stations are supposed to do. “It is what journalism is all about. Journalism is not being a stenographer. Bringing to bear analysis and verification is one of the prime functions of journalism and it is the kind of thing that nobody else does these days,” she says.
Although various fact-checking features have come and gone over the years, few, if any, have taken off and grown the way PolitiFact has.
Adair, who has spent more than 20 years with the Tampa Bay Times, and still works as the paper’s Washington bureau chief, started PolitiFact in 2007 as a fact-checking website for the 2008 presidential campaign.
“The idea was basically to do what journalists should have been doing for a long time, which is holding candidates accountable for their words,” he says.
In creating PolitiFact, Adair wanted to offer fact checking in the spirit of Factcheck.org, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, but presented in a way that is friendlier to readers. Initially, PolitiFact content appeared online and in print.
It wasn’t long before PolitiFact took off. In 2009, the project won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
In addition to expanding its list of local media partners, Adair says he would like to see PolitiFact getting into television production itself.
In the meantime, there is no dearth of subject matter this election season, he says. “Every politician in American ought to face the Truth-O-Meter.”