factcheck
Photo: Courtesy of Eugene Kiely

As candidates continue to enter the 2016 presidential election and spar with each other over issues ranging from same-sex marriage to tax reform, one Penn-founded website is doing its best to help voters know whether or not what the politicians are saying is actually true.

FactCheck.org, a website started out of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003, features news articles pointing out the inaccurate, exaggerated and misleading claims that politicians make. Over the years, its articles have been cited or reprinted in publications such as The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and its staffers have appeared on TV shows and radio channels across the country.

The site has acquired a reputation as one of the most prominent fact-checking publications in the U.S., winning six Webby Awards for Best Political Blog/Website from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences as well as eight People’s Voice Webbys, as voted on by the public. It was recently honored with one of each award at a ceremony on May 18.

FactCheck.org’s director Eugene Kiely said that Annenberg director Kathleen Hall Jamieson founded the organization along with journalist Brooks Jackson, who became its first director, as a way to expand on the fact-checking work that Jackson had previously done for CNN.

“It’s a combination of using the best practices of journalism and academia to produce these pieces,” Kiely said.

Over the years, the organization has expanded, partially because of grants from groups such as the Annenberg Foundation and donations from the site’s supporters. Now, the website includes features such as a page where staffers answer user questions, a quiz testing viewers’ knowledge of the truth behind current events in politics and SciCheck, which points out inaccuracies in politicians’ science-based claims.

Much of the work done each day at FactCheck.org’s offices involves reviewing material. Once they identify the elections or issues in Congress on which they plan to focus, FactCheck.org’s staffers spend hours examining political television ads and legislators’ appearances on talk shows or reading transcripts of their latest speeches and remarks to identify any claims that don’t hold up. They then research the topic of the erroneous remarks and write articles dissecting and correcting the statements.

“Basically, our motto is ‘follow the money’ — wherever the money is being spent on TV ads is where we’re going to be [researching],” Kiely said. “We become very familiar with each of the candidates and the claims and the statements they’re making, so over a period of time we have fully vetted them.”

Now that the 2016 election season is approaching, presidential candidates will soon ramp up their press appearances and TV ads in advance of the primary debates, which kick off in August. Kiely said that he expects FactCheck.org’s workload to grow as the campaign cycle progresses, noting that he hopes to forge partnerships with media outlets to increase the visibility of the content that the site will produce.

“We’re still going to be doing what we do, which is fact-checking debates, fact-checking convention speeches, fact-checking TV ads, trying to make connections with media outlets so they can use our stuff,” he said.

“Being a nonprofit, part of our mission is to spread information far and wide, so our copyright policy is ‘steal our stuff’ — we want organizations out there to use our stuff. We’re just focused on doing what we do, but even better.”

FactCheck.org has taken advantage of its Penn connection by offering yearlong fellowships to undergraduates at Penn since 2010. Selected students undergo training in June and work full time during the summer, continuing for 10-15 hours a week through the school year. The fellows review transcripts of politicians’ interviews, answer emails and write, fact-check and conduct research for articles.

“Hopefully one of the things they take away is being better citizens and more critical thinkers in terms of how they consume information from politicians. One of the things that all of us need to do is think critically about the statement that is made and not bring our individual biases to these [statements],” Kiely said. “I hope they come out of this thinking like journalists, thinking in a way that is more critical of all politicians, not just ones they may be sympathetic to.”

Rising College senior Alex Nacht finished his fellowship with FactCheck.org in May. He said he applied because of his interest in politics and knowledge of the organization’s reputation and enjoyed his year working for the website.

“It was a really great experience. I wrote a lot of articles — I was treated just like a regular staffer,” Nacht said. “There were times where I’d just be on my own, and I’d look at a campaign ad or a speech that was made and do all the research and then I’d get to write the article, too. That was a lot of fun, getting to do an article start to finish — discovering a falsehood or misstatement and taking it all the way through to the publication.”

Rising College sophomore Rebecca Heilweil will take part in the fellowship this year, which she got involved with because she wanted to research public policy without feeling obligated to support a specific political view. She said that she believes that FactCheck.org has benefited many by shedding light on the lies that politicians tell.

“I think it’s helped, at least to some extent, keep lawmakers and politicians honest. I think it’s definitely served to inform other news and academic sources. Going forward, I see FactCheck helping inform more citizens and reaching more online platforms and serving as an honest, bipartisan source of information,” Heilweil said.

Kiely said that he believes the website’s impact can be seen in the rise of similar organizations all around the world inspired by FactCheck.org.

“When this was started in 2003, it was the only regular fact-checking site, not only in the U.S., but in the world. Now there are upwards of 67 of them in the world, and a lot of these were started with [the help of] Brooks Jackson, and now people still come to me and ask for help [on] how to start this up,” he said.

“We started in 2003, and in 2007 [Fact Checker at] the Washington Post and PolitiFact started up — these are kind of like ‘the big three’ of U.S. fact-checking. Others in other countries saw that this was working and it then spread not only in the rest of the country but also around the world,” Kiely added.

“It’s been a tremendous movement, because the whole idea of fact-checking is to hold politicians accountable for what they say and to inform voters so they aren’t manipulated by false and misleading claims, so I think the extent that it’s been duplicated and replicated in so many places around the world just speaks volumes to what [FactCheck.org’s founders] started here.”

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