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Reducing the Levels of Deception

FactCheck.org parses political claims

Eugene Kiely of FactCheck.orgJust because you hear a politician say it, or read it on the internet, does that mean it's true? It's Eugene Kiely's mission to find out, as director of FactCheck.org, a highly regarded nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to reduce the level of deception in U.S. politics. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. On Thursday, March 31, Kiely spoke at Northampton Community College on "Reducing the Levels of Deception and Confusion in U.S. Politics." 

Kiely, a prize-winning journalist, gave a brief history of fact-checking, which he says formally began in 1988, in the presidential campaign that pitted Michael Dukakis against George H.W. Bush. The Bush campaign ran a TV ad with Dukakis riding in a tank, claiming he was weak on defense and stating several facts that were completely wrong or distorted. Richard Threlkeld, a correspondent for ABC News at the time, deconstructed the entire ad in very specific detail. 

"Our goal is not to find the truth," Kiely said, "but to sort through the facts." In the current presidential race, FactCheck.org had to try and "narrow our universe" from a field of about 20 candidates at one point. "We focused on Clinton, Bush, Carson ... and then, with Trump, it became clear we had a thriller on our hands." 

The group doesn't deal in opinions, Kiely explained. "If a candidate says they don't like the stimulus, that's one thing. But if they say the stimulus created no jobs, well ... yes, it did, and that we'll review." 

The process FactCheck uses is a very systematic way of researching claims. A group of six paid staffers watch the Sunday talk shows, C-SPAN videos of the debates, and TV ads featuring the candidates. "After a debate, we'll be up until 3 or 4 a.m. preparing reports so the media will have it for the morning news," Kiely said. Then they use a variety of source material to determine if what was said is true. FactCheck always checks with the candidate's campaign for an explanation of claims they're checking -- although Kiely said some don't answer back. 

"Once we go to the candidate, or the campaign or PAC, we may change our view" as to whether a claim is factual. "The burden is on them to show they're right -- not us to show they're wrong," Kiely explained. If there is a problem, an article is written and then undergoes rigorous editorial review, including a line edit for content, clarity, precision and accuracy. All FactCheck.org articles include links back to the source material that disproves the claim being made. 

"We never say someone is lying -- that goes to motive," Kiely explained. He said often claims a candidate makes aren't wrong, they're simply taken out of context, overstate effects, use outdated or selective evidence, or overstate a problem. True to his organization's nonpartisan stance, Kiely gave examples of these fact-distorting devices that included politicians Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Bernie Sanders and John Kerry. 

So what's a voter to do? Kiely advised the audience, many of whom were journalism students, to use healthy skepticism whenever they read or hear anything a candidate is saying.