Querying fact checking

At NPR's headquarters in Washington, its fact-checking transcript generated significant interest from audiences online. (Photo: Stephen Voss/NPR)

At NPR’s headquarters in Washington, its fact-checking transcript generated significant interest from audiences online. (Photo: Stephen Voss/NPR)

Geopolitics has been at the epicenter of the news the past few months, from the news of Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union with a new Prime Minister, and the diplomatic conversations surrounding the conflict in Syria, to the closely watched campaigns for elections for president of the United States.

As the 8th of November nears, a subject that has been debated is that of fact-checking, and what role it should have in the context of modern political journalism. In the recent debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, NPR had a running transcript with annotations going, the checks being communicated on Twitter, Facebook, and the web site.

When all was said and done, NPR achieved its highest traffic day ever, and the transcript got 7.4 million page views.

Beth Donovan, the supervising senior editor for its Washington Desk, who has worked on previous election output, said the public broadcaster had been trying to perfect engaging audiences when it came to fact-checking.

“Fact checking has long been a priority for NPR,” Donovan said in an interview by email. “Even before this particular race shaped up, we had been trying new things in the fact check lane in hopes of connecting with our audience and helping them engage with political rhetoric through this prism.”

Donovan said audiences had valued a second screen accompaniment to live events, and this fact-checking feature was a way to hone NPR’s engagement strategy. She says similar plans will be in the works for the forthcoming debate this weekend and the final debate later this month.

“There was a transparency to our fact check, people could see us highlighting facts we were about to check (as well as a lot of typos in the first and even second draft of the transcription),” Donovan said. “The audience could see the statement in context, our journalism, and source links. And the page kept moving and changing right on your phone.”

While there was success for NPR in its engagement strategy, it came amid some concerns, before and after the debate was over. The fact-checking annotations commenced amid concerns of trust in the media, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.

In addition, after the debate, concerns had been raised by the ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who, in addition to some listeners, said some questions were missed, despite the best efforts of reporters and editors in Washington. Donovan said her team did the best they could under the circumstances, even as concerns of bias were prevalent.

“We just do our best every day to cover the news and to report fairly and accurately,” Donovan said. “Fact checking is no different.”

Yet, Donovan notes, there is difficulty in accomplishing such a task.

“Even in a news room with as much policy depth as NPR’s, live fact checking is hard,” Donovan said. “The biggest challenges are often the littlest things.”

However, Donovan says, there is something that makes it all worthwhile — the drive and collaboration between its journalists.

“It can look easy or obvious the next day, but watching our annotated transcript come to life was inspiring,” Donovan said. “This is a remarkable newsroom. I always feel especially proud to be part of it on debate nights and in breaking news situations.”

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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