In the height of the election, PolitiFact Ohio editor Robert Higgs was getting a dozen requests a day from people who wanted claims made by candidates checked for accuracy.
People are hungry to learn the truth and need fact-checking services like PolitiFact to find it for them, Higgs told an Akron audience Thursday.
“That is the challenge for all of us,” Higgs, the PolitiFact Ohio editor and a deputy metro editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said during a luncheon speech at the Akron Press Club. “There’s a demand — don’t just do the he said/she said. You check the facts behind the statement and make sure what was said is accurate. That’s what they’re looking for is to get the real truth.”
An audience member asked Higgs who would step in to provide fact checking if the Plain Dealer and other newspapers don’t do it. The question is timely, considering that a campaign is under way to keep the Plain Dealer a seven-day-a-week newspaper and many are concerned about looming changes and potential cutbacks at the paper.
“I don’t know,” Higgs told the audience of about 50 people who attended the luncheon, which was co-sponsored by the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and the League of Women Voters of the Akron Area. “If we quit doing it, I hope another newspaper would pick it up. If another newspaper would not do it, I don’t know who would.”
PolitiFact is a service taken up by the Plain Dealer and newspapers in Ohio and nationally that examines statements made by candidates and campaigns and evaluates their truthfulness. They are given a rating that ranges from true to “pants on fire.”
The Plain Dealer started its PolitiFact in July 2010 and will hit 500 fact checks after the first of the year. All of the ratings are on the Plain Dealer’s website, www.cleveland.com.
Higgs said reporters and editors at the Plain Dealer choose statements to examine based on what they think is interesting. He said reporters talk to the person who made the statement, check his or her sources and then look for unbiased sources, like the U.S. Census Bureau or Bureau of Labor Statistics. Based on this research, a panel of three editors then grades the statement.
The U.S. Senate race between Sen. Sherrod Brown and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel kept PolitiFact busy, with the candidates and the groups that supported them often coming under scrutiny and both sides earning “pants on fire” ratings.
Higgs said he thinks PolitiFact and other fact-checking services that were following this heated race made a difference, with Mandel by the end of the campaign sending out news releases that included citations to back up his claims — a practice Brown had been doing all along.
“I think that is a change prompted because of criticism from the media as a whole,” Higgs said.
Higgs, as another example, pointed to how PolitiFact got 20,000 hits in an hour and a half during the second presidential debate after GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney talked about how oil production on public lands had declined. People were doing Google searches and found a PolitiFact Ohio rating on this topic from a previous statement by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
“That’s the biggest example of how people still care,” Higgs said. “There may be cynicism, but they do want to know what the truth is.”
Asked how he responds to people who claim PolitiFact is unfair, Higgs said PolitiFact gives its sources for each rating it does, so people can check the fact checker if they want.
Another audience member asked what can be done about many voters being misinformed, under-educated or just plain stupid.
“If you catch me on a bad day, I would say, ‘They are stupid,’ ” Higgins said, chuckling. “There are people who believe what they want to believe.”
Higgs said, though, that these are the people at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. He thinks there’s a large number of people in the middle who want to know the truth behind the poli-speak and appreciate services like PolitiFact that provide trained journalists to do this research.
“I don’t think this is something the average citizen could do unless they developed a skill at it,” he said. “They don’t have the time to do that.”