After political debates, tells the true story

During each presidential debate, the team at watches and listens closely to verify statements made by candidates, and draws precise lines between fact, misleading information, and sometimes pure fiction.

person in sparse room sits in chair facing a wall with a cartoon drawing of a televised political debate

“I am not a crook.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “No quid pro quo.” Elected officials and occupants of the highest office of government have told baffling falsehoods and spread misinformation for decades. Despite the looseness of public and official discourse, organizations are reining in the truth to correct the record., an arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is a leader in disseminating facts for public consumption and applying veracity to talking points. FactCheck works year-round, but during election cycles it pays special attention to presidential candidates, especially during televised debates. 

Established in 2003 by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and journalist Brooks Jackson, FactCheck employs a small staff, currently seven full-time staffers, to write stories that monitor the accuracy in claims made by political officials, often debunking false claims entirely, for the benefit of voters and the population at large. (True: See the “Our Mission” page on the FactCheck website.) The objective is to provide a bipartisan resource to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. 

“If our goal was to get politicians to stop making false or misleading claims,” explains Managing Editor Lori Robertson, “the work would not be satisfying. This work is for the public and the consumer.”

Ramping up to the 2020 election year, a record number of Democrats are running to be the presidential nominee. (Mostly true: By the time the primaries officially begin on Feb. 3, 2020, there may still be 18 candidates. The largest official number of candidates in a primary was 16 in 1972.) While the daily news cycle is chock full of claims to verify, during the Democratic debates FactCheck works to provide a clear and factual record to uphold the veracity of a claim, or expose it as misinformation. By 2 a.m., the FactCheck team has compiled a list of claims that has been substantiated and is available on the website for the public. (Mostly true: Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck, stated in an interview that a debate night story usually posts around 2 a.m.) 

Given the length of the debates, the number of candidates, and the sheer volume of content, how does the FactCheck team tackle the debates? The staff begins in real time, identifying claims that are presented as statements of fact by candidates, which the team has not yet covered. For example, in October’s debate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders stated, “500,000 people going bankrupt for one reason: they came down with cancer”—a claim that merited checking—while “Medicare for All will be best for everyone,” was merely an opinion. Once all statements are compiled and transcripts are flagged, the team of seven staffers and a couple of the Penn undergraduates on the FactCheck team begin research. (Mostly true: FactCheck has four undergraduate interns, and only two or three are working on debate night.) The story FactCheck produces highlights only false claims. So, if 12 to 15 statements are flagged during the debates, about eight to 10 claims are included in the story. (True: After October’s debate, the team wrote up 10 claims that were false or misleading.)

“One example was a statement made by [former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Julián Castro, who claimed that Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania lost jobs and didn’t gain any,” says Kiely. “The most recent data we found was from August from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which proved this claim was false.” 

To start, a staffer reaches out to the candidate’s campaign for information to support the claim, then move forward to find data if the campaign can’t provide it or doesn’t respond. Other sources used for verification include the Congressional Budget Office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and any government agency that collects data—the institutions that Jamieson has called “custodians of the knowable.” For each story, the text is typically reviewed by four people before it is published.

In the case of Castro’s claim, the campaign responded that it was not false, but that the statement was true for July, and ignores August, saying the data from that month is incomplete,” says Kiely. 

“Supporters, campaigns, everybody gives us pushback,” he adds.

Because of the quality and thoroughness of FactCheck’s work, the website has won ten Webby Awards for Best News & Politics website from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences

The first time the organization fact-checked a debate in one location was the vice presidential debate in 2008. Rather than working from home and communicating via Slack, as they do now, the staffers gathered in their office, which was in Washington, D.C.’s National Press Building at the time, and pulled their first debate “all-nighter.”

How have candidates responded to having their claims debunked on a popular, award-winning website? “Sometimes candidates change their claims,” says Robertson. “Campaign offices respond to us all the time. Sometimes the candidate will change their claim, but it’s rare.” 

Debates aside, the team focuses on what major political players are saying in a public forum every week, from press conferences to Sunday talk shows, and, in this administration especially, tweets. Social media has a prominent role in both influencing and misleading millions of voters—so powerful, in fact, that in October, Twitter announced it is banning all political ads. Facebook has come under fire for playing a role in the 2016 campaign by providing a platform for misinformation to voters. (True: A study by Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society documented the huge role that propaganda played in the 2016 campaign on social media.) At the end of 2016, FactCheck launched an initiative to work with Facebook on combating “fake news” and viral misinformation. FactCheck recently partnered with Hearst Television Inc. to fact check content on their stations and websites throughout the 2020 campaign cycle.

Back when FactCheck was founded by Jamieson, its focus was to fact-check political television ads for misinformation. Like television ads, social media outlets provide platforms for potential false claims to reach millions of people—and in addition, have the power to spread fake news and viral deceptions by politicians, as well as special interest groups and content mills. To this end, Kiely has sent emails to Facebook asking for its stories to be available to users alongside viral ads from politicians. 

“I think there is a way for Facebook to handle direct political speech,” Kiely says. “It can attach related stories to an ad in their news feed. But they aren’t doing that.” 

Escalating exaggerations are raising “the bar for absurdity,” Kiely adds. This is a bipartisan byproduct of political content. When Joe Biden was serving as vice president, he gave a speech in Flint, Michigan, where he stated that the number of reported rapes had doubled since the number of police had declined. He followed that speech with two more speeches in two other cities, first stating that the number had tripled, then stating that the number had quadrupled. 

“We found that the actual number of reported rapes had gone down,” Kiely says. “Sometimes, the more a false claim gets repeated, the more exaggerated it gets.” 

On the Republican side, Kiely cited President Donald Trump’s statements about U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Marine Corps reservist during the Vietnam War. Blumenthal falsely claimed that he served in the Vietnam War, while in reality, he was a reservist during the war and not in Vietnam at all. Blumenthal's actual statement: “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.” Trump, however, embellished the misinformation that Blumenthal originally spread, exaggerating the senator’s claim to outlandish proportions. Trump claimed Blumenthal said, “I was in the Marines. Da Nang Province. Soldiers dying left and right as we battled up the hill.”  

On debate night, the claims may not be as wildly fantastical, but run the risk of being deceptively vague, such as when businessman Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang inflated the number of opioid overdoses in the country by citing all total drug overdose death totals. Yang attributed all of the deaths to Purdue Pharma alone.

Some claims were more misleading than false. Sanders’ claim that “87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured” did not disclose that 19.3 million were insured but had a gap in coverage in the previous year. And yet other claims are projections: Sanders said, “the Green New Deal that I have advocated will create up to 20 million jobs as we move away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.” This is a projection, but would it warrant fact-checking? 

“In those cases, we will ask the campaign to provide support for the claim that it will create 20 million jobs. If there is support for it, then we won’t write about it,” Kiely explains. “If the analysis they provide is flawed, then we would write about it.” 

This kind of projection was reviewed by the FactCheck team in 2012 when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced a 59-point economic plan, “Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.” It reported that cutting individual income tax rates would favor the wealthy and would lose federal revenue, contrary to Romney's claim that he could cut those tax rates without either favoring the wealthy or losing revenue. In 2008, President Barack Obama projected that half of the $120 billion annual savings from his health care plan would come from the use of electronic health records. FactCheck reported that, based on expert feedback and data from the Congressional Budget Office, this was “wishful thinking.”

Less than one year out from the 2020 presidential election, the country will whittle down the draw of Democratic candidates, making their decisions based on debates, news media, and social media. When viral misinformation clouds accuracy, voters will turn to the candidates themselves to hear the campaign promises, figures, and claims directly. And the FactCheck team will drill down into those campaign promises, so that voters can ultimately access the truth and who tells it.