The U.S. presidential election is more than a year away, but scrutinizing the claims, statements, debates, and stances of the numerous presidential candidates can feel quite overwhelming. (At last count there were eight Democratic and nine Republican candidates.) How do we keep up with who said what and check to see if it contradicts their earlier statements? Luckily, some sites have emerged that bring fact-checking to the forefront. It’s great to find others with the questioning and skeptical tendencies that librarians are trained to have.
The Washington Post Co. launched a new site in early September called The Fact Checker (www.washingtonpost.com/factchecker) that aims to be "the place to go for impartial refereeing of campaign rhetoric." According to information posted at the site, the purpose of the site and the accompanying column in The Post, "is to ‘truth squad’ the national political debate in the period leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Our goal is to shed as much light as possible on controversial claims and counter-claims involving important national issues, such as the war in Iraq, immigration, health care, social issues, the economy, and the records of the various presidential candidates."
As The Post described it, "A presidential campaign is a war of words, not all of them completely accurate, and trying to sort truth from half-truth has traditionally been our job. But the claims and counterclaims of the 2008 candidates now flow, tsunami-like, on blogs, video, talk radio, and email."
The distinguished Washington Post writer Michael Dobbs is the author of The Fact Checker. The site also calls upon the research expertise of Alice Crites, who has been the "crack researcher" for The Post’s investigative department for the better part of the last decade, where she worked on three Pulitzer-winning series.
The Fact Checker aims to be simple, straightforward, and unbiased. And, it wants to involve readers in the discourse—the fact-checking is designed to be a collaborative effort. Readers are encouraged to get involved in the discussion on the Web and to suggest subjects to fact-check. Significant new fact-check items are also posted on The Trail, The Post’s daily diary of Campaign 2008.
The Fact Checker presents an issue and receives readers’ comments and any responses from the candidates; then Dobbs offers a comprehensive analysis. When there’s a statement that seems at variance with the facts, the site will point it out. When it finds that something is subject to several interpretations, it will point that out.
When it isn’t possible to render a snap judgment because the issue is very complex or there are good arguments on both sides, the site will withhold judgment until it can gather more facts.
Whenever possible, based on research and input, Dobbs makes a judgment and assigns an official "Pinocchio" rating that ranks the candidates’ statements on a scale of one (some shading of the facts) to four (whoppers). The prized Geppetto checkmark is awarded for statements and claims that contain "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." There’s a search facility that allows you to screen by the candidate, the issue, and even the rating. For some interesting and entertaining reading, check out the archive for the three items rated with four Pinocchios.
The Fact Checker said that it also relies on the expertise of other organizations that have established sites, including the Annenberg Political Fact Check project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania (www.factcheck.org) and PolitiFact.com, a project from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly (www.politifact.com).
The APPC, which was established in 1994, accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations, or individuals. It is funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation. It uses a large team of journalists and researchers. The group recently launched FactCheckEd.org as an educational resource for high school teachers and students. It is designed to help students "learn to cut through the fog of misinformation and deception that surrounds the many messages they’re bombarded with every day."
PolitiFact offers ratings as well. Its "Truth-O-Meter" provides a "scorecard separating fact from fiction," with the most outrageous meter reading called "Pants-on-Fire." It also offers fact-checking for campaign videos, "On the Tube," and "The Attack File," which scores attacks on the candidates. It lets visitors to the site browse by ratings.
More Useful Political Sites
- OnTheIssues.org: This site offers a very interesting VoteMatch Quiz that asks 20 questions and then matches you with a candidate.
- RealClearPolitics: This site claims to be an independent political site that culls and publishes the best commentary, news, polling data, and links to important resources.
- OpenSecrets.org: This site from the Center for Responsive Politics calls itself "Your Guide to the Money in U.S. elections."