PolitiFact tops Kickstarter goal

By Taylor Newman

PolitiFact team at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Angie Drobnic Holan (second to left, front) and the PolitiFact team at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Sometimes trying something new pays off. It did for PolitiFact.

The fact-checking website, which rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics, topped its fundraising goal with its very first Kickstarter campaign this week.

The initial goal was to reach $15,000 in order to fund a team of journalists to provide a live fact-checking during the Jan. 20 State of the Union address, but PolitiFact surpassed the target amount Wednesday – six days before the deadline.

“We know that readers like our State of the Union coverage; it’s one of our most popular nights,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact. “We did a Kickstarter so we could add staff and use some new technology tools to try and do something new and different.”

Kickstarter dedicated its own category to journalism projects last June, and PolitiFact’s idea makes the second successful journalism campaign on Kickstarter of 2015 so far (a new Knoxville newspaper was funded Jan. 10).

Hundreds of journalism projects have been funded since the crowdfunding website launched in 2009, and they vary from efforts to start brand new publications to independent journalists reporting on specific events to established publications like PolitiFact looking for funding on special projects.

Established in 2007, PolitiFact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute. It is organized as a network with three national reporters and partners in seven different states. Holan was part of the team that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2009 for the journalists’ fact-checking research during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Each day, PolitiFact reporters follow the news, looking for statements that can be checked. The staff explores social media, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, speeches and press releases to verify and ultimately rate facts on a true-false scale. Reporters publish original statements with their evaluations online and assign each a “Truth-O-Meter” rating. The claims are assessed on a scale ranging from “True” for accurate claims, “Half True” for the partially true statements and “Pants on Fire” for those that are verified to be completely bogus.

Findings can also be found on the political site’s two mobile apps, PolitiFact and Settleit!

“We try and fact-check issues that are in the news and we try and fact-check across the political spectrum,” Holan said. “We are independent and we don’t take positions on political issues. Our sole mission is to give people accurate information about politics.”

PolitiFact chose to test out Kickstarter for the State of the Union address, since it is one of its bigger annual events. The funds from Kickstarter will be directed to support a staff of 10 journalists who will provide quick, objective analysis of President Barack Obama’s speech through a live blog that will include video and text. It will also back the compilation of an annotated version of the speech ready for readers the next morning.

Holan explained how issuing annotations will give a more robust version of the online publication’s usual fact-checking process.

“I think we have a core readership that really appreciates us and likes what we do,” Holan said. “They are interested in politics and government, but they’re always unsure if they’re getting the real information from the politicians and the parties.”

PolitiFact’s reporters spend a great deal of time looking at research reports, consulting subject experts, and going back to archives to find factual evidence in support of or against a claim. They then assemble a detailed report laying out evidence and how they arrived at their conclusion.

“Our audience [consists of] everyday voters who are just looking for information to help them make decisions when it comes to politics,” Holan said.

In 2014, for instance, PolitiFact plowed through selected exaggerations about Ebola. The team also fact-checked the mid-term elections, as well as close senate and gubernatorial races. It even checks memes that go viral on Facebook.

However, Holan explained that nothing compares to the excitement of the State of the Union address.

“[It] is something the White House spends a lot of time preparing and is edited carefully by a staff of researchers, so it’s very rare you’d find a glaring error,” Holan said. “They’re usually more careful than that, but all politicians will spin the facts to support their points and leave out context, which is where our reporters come in and set the record straight.”

Throughout the Kickstarter process, PolitiFact utilized every avenue to spread the word. Social media, email lists, stories in affiliate newspapers and published information on their personal webpage all assisted in campaign efforts.

“We’re going to see how this one pans out,” Holan said. “We hope to learn from the use of the technology and hope to bring some of these techniques to our debates later on.”

As a follow-up to reaching its goal Wednesday, PolitiFact updated its website to encourage further donations while the Kickstarter campaign remains open. It announced two ideas: if the project exceeds $18,000 in funding, the news site will send a fact-checker to Iowa for a week to follow presidential news, and for $20,000, one of the national fact-checkers will go to New Hampshire for a week, too.

Holan said it’s likely PolitiFact could launch an additional Kickstarter campaign for next year’s coverage of the 2016 presidential race.

Reporting by Taylor Newman. Edited by Stephanie Forshee.

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