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Government and Politics

The PolitiFact effect plays big in Ohio
Taking a closer look at the long-term effect of fact-checking on politics, government and journalism
This story is part of a special series.

Kabir Bhatia
In The Region:
Election Day was a month ago. But one aspect of the 2012 campaign continues to play a role as the president and Congress have moved on to the battle over taxes and spending. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on the longer-term effect of fact-checking on politics, government and journalism.
The Politifact Effect

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Politifact began at the Tampa Bay Times in 2007, researching and assigning a truth rating to statements by politicians. The Ohio branch started up in July 2010 at the Plain Dealer, sinking its teeth into its first complete election cycle this year. PolitiFact Ohio Editor Robert Higgs told a recent gathering of the Akron Press Club the statements that come under PolitiFact’s scrutiny begin with a simple question.

“The Super PAC ads, in particular, prompted the classic response -- the one that gets us to start looking at a statement -- where a reader sees it and says , 'Is that really true? That seems odd.' And more and more we were getting specific requests from readers, 'I heard Sherrod Brown say this in a speech. Is it true?'"

Reporters follow up by scouring Census data, Congressional Budget Office reports and other original sources before Higgs and two other editors then sit down for the great debate: Where does the story fall on the “Truth-O-Meter”?

Toughest debates: The middle
Higgs expects the mission will get harder as politicians grow used to journalism that goes beyond essentially transcribing speeches. And Kelly McBride of the journalism think-tank, the Poynter Institute, agrees.

“What they're doing is, they're not spouting off as many bald-faced lies. They're all trying to avoid the 'Pants-on-Fire' rating. Because that gets a lot of attention. So instead, what they're doing is saying things that usually get a ‘partially true’ ruling or a ‘partially false’ ruling. And what that does is avoid the sensationalism of being called a liar. And allows them to deliver whatever type of spin or distortion they're trying to deliver in their message.”

Higgs is careful to note that PolitiFact doesn’t actually apply the word “lie” or “liar.” Instead, it indulges in a bit of whimsy for the most egregious claims: “Pants on fire.”

Brown v. Mandel
The battle between Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel was the most expensive in Ohio history and most contentious in memory. Higgs notes that both got more ratings that leaned true than false. When things leaned false, they usually stemmed from personal attacks and from the Super PACs that poured tens of millions into the race. And he says the string of “pants on fire” ratings against Mandel had its effect on other journalists and Mandel’s campaign.

"Early on, it was clear with the Mandel campaign that one of their strategies was to go after Sherrod Brown. They told us as much. By the time we were getting down to the end, they were operating much more like the Brown people. And when we called them up late in the campaign and said, 'What have you got to back up this claim?' They had something. And I think that is a change prompted because of the criticism from the media as a whole."

Poynter’s Kelly McBride says fact-checking by journalists is taking on greater importance due to the speed and volume of information.

“I think that in today's media environment the difference is there's so much more information coming at you if you're a member of the audience. You're not just getting the newspaper and the television. Now you're getting this firehose of information that is coming at you through Facebook, Twitter, your phone and mobile apps. So we need a new form of journalism that can help us sort through these messages that we might be hearing over and over and over again.”

Politifact isn’t the only organization doing fact-checking journalism; it’s joined by, and The Washington Post. But Higgs notes that the effort takes time. And McBride says – especially at the local level, where fewer reporters are watching – efforts like the Plain Dealer’s are growing more crucial.
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