Dave Mistich Published

With Media Trust Low, PolitiFact Rolls into 'Trump Country' to Foster Conversation


President Donald Trump’s continued cries of “fake news” come at a time when his approval rating hovers just below 40 percent nationwide. Still yet, his supporters remain vigilant and carry with them a strong distrust in the news media. But, it’s not just Trump supporters losing faith in the news media — Gallup polling shows trust in the media is down across party lines and other demographics. With that in mind, PolitiFact — known best for its fact-checking ratings system The Truth-o-Meter — is looking to dive right in to the places that supported Trump the most and foster a conversation. 

On Tuesday night in Charleston, reporters and editors from the outlet will host a forum at the Kanawha County Public Library, wrapping up two days of meetings with local GOP leaders and others disenchanted by the news media. That stop marks the third and final one on a mini-tour for the outlet.

We spoke with PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson about the event and some of the wider issues at play with media in the Trump era.

Below is a transcript of that conversation, which was edited for clarity and length. 

Tuesday’s forum in Charleston is the third and final stop on this mini tour, so to speak, for PolitiFact. There were stops in Mobile, Alabama and Tulsa, Oklahoma. These places, like Charleston, were picked specifically for their heavy support of Donald Trump. But, I should mention that a Rasmussen poll back in September of last year — towards the end of the campaign season — showed that 88 percent of Trump supporters don’t believe fact checking organizations such as yours and don’t trust the media. Tell us a little bit about making the choices of these specific spots and what you’ve learned so far.

Well, I’m glad you cited that figure because that was really kind of a motivating factor for us in deciding to do this. We got a little bit of grant money for the Knight Foundation, which funds journalism projects. And, you know — as a fact check organization we want to get factual — trustworthy information out there and it’s kind of depressing and disturbing for us if a large chunk of the country just doesn’t want to hear what we have to say.

So, we’d like to kind of bridge the divide with these trips and these are, you know, three solidly red states. I think a big motivation for me and wanting to do this is to sort of reach out to people who might not even know we exist — or if they do know that we exist, to try to get them to trust us more — and that can really only be done on a face to face basis.

So much of the political discourse today is totally online, often anonymous. People are tempted and are able to throw darts at each other without seeing them in person. And so, we have set up meetings. We just finished one with a bunch of GOP officials here in Morgantown — about half dozen people — as a sort of a free-wheeling conversation about their about their concerns on the media, about us in particular — but, also just in general, the media and what they do and don’t like and ways that we can sort of address their concerns.

One of the big things with PolitiFact is the Truth-o-Meter. If you’ve paid attention to media over the past few years, you’ve seen it somewhere. One of the things I’m curious about is the methodology behind that — not only how the fact checking takes place but also the choices the statements made by President Trump and other public officials. How are those decisions made and could you walk me through that entire process?

So let’s start with the choosing of statements to check. We look through speeches and transcripts of TV appearances by major politicians.We also just sort of automatically hear things that everybody’s talking about we just know you have to fact check — everybody’s wondering about it and then we also get a lot of tips from our readers who e-mail us to say ‘Hey, you know, I saw this in my Facebook feed. Can you check this out?’ It might be a meme or it might be some other questionable posting.

So, we sort of sift through all these and figure out, first of all, a very basic question: ‘Is this checkable? Is this something which is a factual question or is it something that is an opinion or maybe a prediction?’ Which makes it very hard, if not impossible, to fact check. So, we choose a particular segment of that quote — we don’t check entire speeches, we don’t check entire paragraphs.

We’ll check about one sentence or maybe two at most, because we want to zero in on something which is narrow and tangible and we want to be able to sort of not get a statement that we check where it’s got three or four different parts going in different directions and ‘how you rate it in the end?’ So, we find a suitable statement to check and then we do just regular journalism, pretty much. We talked to experts, we find documents, we do data queries and databases. After four or five hours of work — sometimes more if it’s a complicated story — we will write it up and the editor will do a first edit. The writer of the story proposes a rating on our six-point scale –which I should say is: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire.

And the writer suggests one of those. The editor can agree with that or not. But, then, the actual decision on the final rating goes to what’s called the Star Chamber. It’s that first editor joined by two totally new editors to that story. The writer usually sits in but they don’t have a vote. It’s basically the three editors vote and you know sometimes it’s going to be really easy and it might take two minutes because it’s a very clear-cut fact check. But, sometimes, it gets to be a bit of a knock-down, drag-out battle between one editor who thinks that should be mostly false and two who think it should be half true. Often, the power of persuasion, that third person can be convinced to come along on the other’s rating. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing some of the language to maybe give greater emphasis to a certain point that the person who wanted mostly false was trying to make. But, generally speaking, it gets worked out and the final ruling holds. That said, you know, I kind of consider the rating to be equivalent to the headline of a news story. It’s a summary. It’s our best distillation of what we think we found. And just as you wouldn’t want to only read the headline and not read the story, if you want to fully understand something, you also don’t want to just see our rating and then not read the story.

[What we try to do] is to be thorough in the evidence we provide — and we provide all of our sources that are listed on the right-hand side of the page and the source list and the story itself has the actual click links to the data that we used — and all of our comments are on the record from our sources. So, you know, if you disagree with our rating, that’s fine. We’re not the voice of God. We’re just three editors sitting in a room trying and trying our best to find the best way to summarize a point. 

If people want to disagree with the rating, that’s definitely their prerogative and certainly reasonable people can disagree on what the final rating should be. But, at the very least, what we do want people to experience is that they read the story that we’ve written and maybe click through some of the links to make sure we’re doing it right and feel ‘OK, you know, I’ve learned something from this. I might not agree with the final ruling on it, but you know I know more about this topic than I did and it seems like a reasonable argument.’

A lot of this conversation right now comes down to a wider distrust of news media. A recent Gallup poll shows trust in the media remains extremely low. A lot of people might argue that President Trump’s cries of ‘fake news’ play some role in that. In the same breath, though, we should point out that Gallup’s polling numbers on Trump’s approval rating also remain very low — somewhere hovering around just below 40 percent. How big of a factor is Trump’s rhetoric and media criticism playing into all of this with is low approval rating. Is there any explanation for how that sits together?

It’s a fair question. I don’t really know the answer to that. But, I will say that I think what the president has done with his rhetoric is [that] he’s really bolstered his own supporters in a sort of anti-media frame of mind. But, also, at the same time [he has] bolstered his opponents in more of a pro-media frame of mind. Unfortunately, it breaks down. It further sort of divides us between those who trust the media and those who don’t. I see that as unfortunate and I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do here during our visit.

We want people to have open minds and to be open to new arguments and factual arguments, factual data and not just simply brush it off as being untrustworthy without even giving it a chance. And we want to reach out to people, as we’ve been doing on this trip, who might not necessarily follow us currently or might be predisposed against us and try to present ourselves as, you know, real people who are trying our best to sort of navigate a difficult challenge in finding what’s true and trying to get people to give us a shot.

Finally, wrapping things up, knowing all this and with the news media also being hyper aware — we’re hyper aware here of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as are other news outlets around the state and around the country — with Trump, the public’s perception of the media, all that — what is the answer moving forward? I mean I think there has been a larger push for transparency in reporting methods. Reporters are showing their work, there’s even more scrutinized sourcing of materials and documents, interviews and sources. We also saw the New York Times put out this big push about their social media rules and code of conduct. Recently, they opened that up to the public. Are these steps forward? If so, and either way — if it is or if it isn’t — what else needs to be done in improving this relationship between the media and its audience?

I think several of those steps are wise steps. I do like the idea of journalists on social media trying to avoid very opinionated statements. My own Twitter feed is pretty plain vanilla. I share my stories and I share a couple of stories that I think are good by other journalists and talk a little bit. Like today, I’m tweeting out about some of the things we’ve been doing here in West Virginia. So, I think that’s that’s probably a smart decision. I totally like the idea of transparency of sources. I mean, as I said we at PolitiFact are trying to be very transparent about that in terms of listing our sources and not using off-the-record comments or anonymous comments from sources.

I think, ultimately, while journalists and journalism in general can do useful things like that — small steps — I think over the longer term, it actually comes down to the education system and sort of making sure that young kids growing up today are open minded, intellectually curious and know how to navigate the World Wide Web in a way that they can know what is questionable information and what is trustworthy. It’s really kind of an issue that our K through 12, and even college education systems, need to start focusing on — so that kids have the tools that they need to figure out what is true and what is not in what’s kind of currently a Wild West of the internet.