The Truth-O-Meter arrives in Missouri

PolitiFact is now keeping an eye on Jefferson City, home of Missouri's state capitol.
PolitiFact is now keeping an eye on Jefferson City, home of Missouri's state capitol.

Political speech has a common and frequent victim: the truth.

For years, politicians, officeholders and partisan campaigners have taken liberties with facts, often to advance their causes. Advances in technology and changes in news consumption and messaging strategies make shading the truth seem more prevalent than ever. Candidates and officials carefully tailor comments and assertions to be retweeted or selected as sound bites. Often their statements are never questioned or challenged.

But the same digital technology that makes political speech easier to spread also has made it easier to investigate. The Internet allows rapid access to databases, deep searching of archives and the World Wide Web itself and easy identification of knowledgeable sources and how to reach them.

Against this backdrop, a new specialty in journalism — the modern fact-check — has emerged. Verification has always been a critical element of journalism, but its value now is greater than ever.

While traditional journalism focuses on descriptive reporting and strives to accurately report what was said, fact-checking journalism focuses on accountability reporting and strives to determine whether what was said is actually true.

The application of accountability journalism to political speech is not only important to democracy, it’s popular with readers — especially when news organizations are willing to not only affirm the truth but also blow the whistle on lies. That’s why the Missourian and the Missouri School of Journalism have partnered with PolitiFact, the premiere organization for fact-checking political speech, to ferret out the facts and determine whether the statements and assertions of Missouri’s officeholders and politicians are, in fact, true.

Seven of our top students are engaged in deep research and in finding the experts most capable of casting light on the veracity of a politician’s claim. While reporters from PolitiFact’s national operation run down claims and statements made by presidential candidates and national political officials, as PolitiFact’s Missouri partner, our reporters will focus on newsworthy claims and assertion made by Missouri politicians and officials. Our work, which will form a PolitiFact/Missouri database (and will also go into PolitiFact’s national database), adheres to the same rigorous standards as our national partner.

Our first PolitiFact/Missouri report, investigating a statement made by Gov. Jay Nixon about how Missouri leads the nation in holding down tuition rates, is available here.

"We’re thrilled that PolitiFact has found a home in Missouri. We hope Missouri voters are too," said Aaron Sharockman, an editor and writer with PolitiFact. "PolitiFact/Missouri will help voters make better informed decisions when they cast their ballot in next year’s elections."

PolitiFact was launched in 2007 by the Tampa Bay Times to fact check the 2008 presidential campaign. Five reporters and editors probed more than 750 claims made during the campaign, and the Pulitzer Prize board honored the startup’s coverage with a Pulitzer for National Reporting the following April.

It has since launched partnerships with news organizations in eight states. Missouri makes nine.

PolitiFact strives to be honest, fair and transparent in its reporting. It rigorously checks out claims by Democrats, Republicans and politicians of every stripe. It’s not uncommon for the online version of an individual fact-check to list more than a dozen links to relevant sources used in analyzing a claim. This transparent approach to "showing your work" allows readers to do their own reporting and assure themselves of the quality of the reporter’s work.

PolitiFact stories focus on verifiable statements, not opinions. In addition, PolitiFact’s approach recognizes that context matters. Reporters always try to obtain the original statement in its full form. Whenever possible, reporters go to original sources. And reporters are dogged in seeking the evidence that will prove or disprove an assertion.

While the reporting is thorough and meticulous, PolitiFact may be best known for the way it categorizes its conclusions about the truth of a statement. The organization introduced the "Truth-O-Meter," a scale that acknowledges that the truth of a political statement is rarely a black-and-white affair.

Truth-O-Meter rulings are determined by a panel of at least three editors and reporters, who review the reporting and decide what level of a ruling will be applied.

There are six levels of PolitiFact’s ratings. Here are the definitions of each:

True — The statement is accurate and nothing significant is missing.

Mostly True — The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Half True — The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Mostly False — The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

False — The statement is not accurate.

Pants on Fire — The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Fact checking political speech can be an essential tool in helping citizens learn the truth and in making informed decisions about what to believe and what to discount.

I have no doubt that some of the politicians we fact-check in the coming months will be uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny to which their words are subjected. That’s too bad.

We pay officeholders to represent us and to make thoughtful decisions in the public interest. Asking them to be honest and truthful when they speak is not an unfair or extraordinary expectation.

We should hold our politicians to the highest standards of telling the truth. If they can’t do that, they should expect to be called on the carpet.