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The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Fast fact checking facts: PolitiFact uses modern tools to inform voters

Reporter Chris Nochols runs PolitiFact's California headquarters out of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Photo Courtesy of Capital Public Radio
Reporter Chris Nichols runs PolitiFact’s California headquarters out of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Photo Courtesy of Capital Public Radio

In today’s social media centered news cycle, it seems that wild political soundbites and emotional claims reign supreme. With such a big focus on the bizarre and outrageous, it’s easy for voters to lose track of whether candidates are telling the truth.

Armed with Google searches,, exhaustive Twitter histories and contact lists full of experts, fact checkers have entered the fray to verify claims made by politicians. During the recent presidential debates, organizations like the Washington Post, Snopes. com, the Sacramento Bee’s PoliGraph and the Annenberg Public Policy Center participated in fact checking claims made by candidates.

One of the first organizations to devote itself solely to fact checking is, originally affiliated with the Tampa Bay Times, but which now has news organizations across the country to provide fact-checking services.

PolitiFact’s California bureau is run by Chris Nichols out of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.

“We have a pretty rigorous system,” Nichols said.

The journalists at PolitiFact obsessively watch and read a vast array of media, from traditional news to social media to see what people and politicians are talking about, as well as the mailers and official statements from the campaigns. The fact checkers start their morning looking for statements that are provocative, interesting or throw up some red flags.

“The first thing we do is contact the person who made the statement and give them a chance to explain it,” Nichols said.

Afterward, fact checkers in the organization look for non-partisan experts

to weigh in. Then, PolitiFact compiles its research and logs the result.

Results are then sent to a board of editors who debate what ranking the fact check should be given.

By the end of the day PolitiFact will have ranked a statement on a scale from “True” to “Pants On Fire” for more egregious statements.

PolitiFact California has made its editorial stance not to cover new statements during political speeches or debates until the next morning, so they have time to properly research the statement and contact experts.

However, because politicians often use canned responses, PolitiFact maintains a large social media presence during live debates and speeches and reposts fact checks the moment they become relevant, as well as crowd-sourcing what topics will be most critical for them to cover in the aftermath.

Nichols and his office have a focus on the California elections, and he said he found the ballot measure campaigns the most interesting.

In one instance, Nichols recalls that the tobacco industry was running an ad against Proposition 56 that featured a doctor claiming that the proposition catered more to “special interest groups” than to health. “That’s a provocative message,” Nichols said.

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“You have these big industries, like the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry, spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars on all these campaign advertisements,” said Nichols.

“The thing I’ve found is, these folks that put these ads together, they know what the facts are, they’re pretty smart people and they’re very well-informed,” Nichols said. “So they do just enough with their advertisements to have an element of truth to them, but are misleading or deceptive at the same time.”

This puts PolitiFact in a position of not simply rating statements as true or false, because often the statement doesn’t show the whole picture or the context the statement was given in. That, Nichols says, is where more in-depth and long form journalism comes in.

“Fact checking,” he said, “is only a piece of journalism. I wouldn’t want the traditional stories and investigations and all that to go away.”

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