By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

A local media birthday of note is coming up in July.

On The Gazette’s web site, the first “Gazette Fact Checker” column is dated July 2015. So, a few weeks early, happy birthday, fact checker. I’m glad you’re around.

The idea of “fact checking” as a media activity isn’t new. The term is applied to a step in the copy editing process where being a “fact checker” is a job title. And, of course, checking facts is something any reporter should do because journalism involves making choices about what information is valid, versus what information is baseless rumor.

But “fact checking” columns are a newer feature of the national media. The best known are Politifact.com, which began as a project of the St. Petersburg Times and is now run by the Tampa Bay Times. The Washington Post publishes The Fact Checker column. There is also a web site, Snopes.com, that debunks internet rumors and often dips into fact checking. Another site, FactCheck.org, is a part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The wave of fact checking began in 2003 with FactCheck.org, but that is a “think tank” site. In journalism, the prominence of fact checking columns got a boost in 2007 with the launch of PolitiFact, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Today, there is a PolitiFact Iowa site that is part of a family of such state sites – the one in Iowa is run by The Des Moines Register.

Each fact check has its own way of rating the claims that are investigated. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, for instance, rates claims from one to four Pinocchios, while a statement that is “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” gets the rare Geppetto checkmark. The Gazette uses grades from A to F, also represented by a color scale from green (A) to pink (F).

Of course, there are politically-charged fact check sites, and the whole fact-checking journalism enterprise has come under fire for various reasons.

As for me, I have long been a reader of both PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org, which I find to be pretty reliable. I also occasionally dip into the Post’s Fact Checker. I don’t think any of these sites is attempting to hijack the political system or push a particular agenda. But rather they represent honest, and sometimes conflicting, attempts to do something useful – to actually check assertions that are part of our public discourse.

The Gazette’s Fact Checker is useful partly because it is local. It focuses on what public leaders in Iowa and the Corridor are asserting. Over the past year or so, I haven’t always agreed with the ratings, but I find the column to be thoughtful and thought provoking.

Recently, The Gazette looked into a PAC ad that claimed Sen. Chuck Grassley has been bipartisan. In terms of the specific claims made in the ad, The Gazette’s column finds them to be true, which earned an A grade.

Note that the rating of the pro-Grassley PAC ad is not an overall judgement of whether Chuck Grassley is a good senator or a bad one; it’s a conclusion based on the narrow claims of a particular ad.

That is one reason to be careful how interpreting any of these fact-checking sites. They are only checking on the veracity of an assertion, and not on the impact of an entire policy course of action. Also, if a particular claim is held to be true or false, you should read the article to see if the rationale makes sense. You can (and should) quibble with whether you think a claim seems “mostly true” or “half true.”

Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column at The Washington Post, wrote a defense of fact checking in 2011. In it, he noted that his column does not replace the need for a beat reporter to verify information. “Fact checking is a compliment, not a replacement” for good reporting, Kessler wrote.

The Gazette Fact Checker has been pretty generous with its grading. Out of 48 grades, it has assigned 20 As, 16 Bs, three Cs, four Ds and five Fs. If anything, I would want it to be a little more aggressive.

Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at jsheller@mtmercy.edu.

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