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PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the "Star Chamber"

Tuesday Q&A: Bill Adair on leaving PolitiFact for academia and the Simon & Garfunkel theory of presidential coverage

The PolitiFact founder, headed to a professorship at Duke, reflects on the fact-checking boom and talks about preparing the next generation of journalists.

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the "Star Chamber"

Back in 2007, St. Petersburg Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair was staring a presidential election in the face, and it didn’t look good. Adair, then an almost two-decade veteran of the paper (since renamed the Tampa Bay Times), was fed up with what he saw as blatant and unchecked lying by campaigning politicians. Frustrated but not defeated, Adair went to his editors with an idea that would become PolitiFact. The Truth-o-Meter was born.

rulings_tom-pantsonfireIt hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing since then — accusations have been levied from both sides that PolitiFact’s ratings are partisan, neutered by fear of appearing partisan, or some other permutation. But nonetheless, PolitiFact keeps growing — now up to almost a dozen partnerships with regional papers around the country and a recently contracted expansion to Australia.

And as it turns out, training Australian journalists on how to use the Truth-o-Meter will be one of the last major involvements Adair has with PolitiFact before taking on a Knight professorship at Duke University in July. Adair will continue as a contributing editor at the Times, but he’ll be focused on developing new products through the Reporters’ Lab at Duke and developing classroom inquiries into journalistic ethics and the history of White House reporting.

Over the phone, we talked about bringing PolitiFact to state and local governments (and abroad), the importance of presidential access to the modern press corps, and about building new forms of storytelling around task-oriented design.

Google Voice actor: This call is now being recorded.
Caroline O’Donovan: Hello?
Bill Adair: That’s cool! How do you do that?
O’Donovan: It’s actually a Google Voice number. If someone calls you, you can hit “4″ and it will record it and email it to you as an .mp3 in a voicemail format.
Adair: How totally cool! I didn’t realize Google Voice did that. I’m supposed to be a leader in technology and I didn’t know that.
O’Donovan: Yeah, the only awkward thing is generally someone has to call you for it to work.
Adair: And probably from this Google will start to show me ads based on things I said in the interview.
O’Donovan: Well, they make transcripts of voicemails, but they won’t email me a transcript of this, which would be really convenient.
Adair: How good are the transcripts of your voicemails?
O’Donovan: Pretty bad. Pretty bad. Anyway, congratulations!
Adair: Thank you, I’m very excited. It’s a great honor to be a Knight chair, and fantastic to be at Duke, so I’m really looking forward to it.
O’Donovan: Is teaching something you always thought you would try?
Adair: It’s really a unique opportunity that kind of materialized when my friend Sarah Cohen, who had the job before, moved on to The New York Times. [Director of Duke's Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy] Jay Hamilton called and asked if I would be interested in the job, and the more I researched it and talked to Sarah and talked to Jay, the more I realized it’s just a rare opportunity to both teach and also continue to explore new forms of journalism, which has become a real passion for me.
O’Donovan: Will you be taking over the Reporters’ Lab?
Adair: Yes. My goal is to build on what Sarah did, and then put some new emphasis on story forms. The theme of my research will be that journalism is still stuck in the 80s. We are still using traditional story forms, whether they are ink on paper story forms or things from broadcast that really we haven’t adapted very much to the 21st century. What I would like to do is focus on —

[A goat bleats in the background.]

O’Donovan: Sorry, is that a goat?
Adair: [Laughs] Yes, that is a goat. That’s the sound when I get a text message.
O’Donovan: Oh, it’s not a living goat. So sorry.
Adair: [Laughs] No, I think that would violate the zoning ordinances here in downtown Washington.
O’Donovan: Maybe it was some sort of exit prank? I don’t know.
Adair: I live in fear of those.

So the focus of my research and experimentation will be in trying to develop new forms of journalism, similar to what we have done at PolitiFact. The Truth-o-Meter fact check, and really all of PolitiFact, is a new form of journalism. It’s told both in individual stories and in the tally of fact checks for a given person or a given group. We basically started from scratch, and I’d like to do similar things with other types of journalism particularly coverage of state and local government. What I’d like to do is, explore how we can cover state and local government recognizing news organizations have limited resources by pulling public data and adding journalism to it in new ways.

O’Donovan: I’m curious to hear where you think fact check journalism is going. There’s an increased focus on building programs that will do some of that work. I’m curious where you think that’s going — will it be less and less focused on humans?
Adair: I sort of see that two ways. One, there’s been explosive growth in fact checking in the past ten years, and I think that’s a wonderful thing and I’m glad PolitiFact has been a big part of it. We’ve shown that fact checking works not just on presidential campaigns, but also at the state and local level. Our partners around the country routinely put mayors and city council members through the Truth-o-Meter, just as they do their U.S. senators. So there’s been a wonderful growth in fact checking.

I’m always open to the idea of new technology that helps journalists do their work and that publishes the work in more effective ways. I am wary, however, about the idea of auto fact checking, because this is much more complicated than assembling a story using a baseball box score.

However, I think there are things that we can use technology for that matches things that public officials say with previously published fact checking. For example, voice detection could hear phrases that have been fact checked and trigger a pop up on a screen that says, “Hey, PolitiFact checked that, they rated it Pants on Fire.” Matching voice and visual messages with work that has been done and published previously.

O’Donovan: Getting back a little bit to forms of storytelling — I was just reading what Jay Hamilton said about the work you’re going to be doing there. I know you designed some mobile apps for PolitiFact, and he said you’d be pursuing similar projects. Is mobile something you’re interested in pursuing in terms of forms of storytelling?
Adair: Very much. We all use our tablets and our smartphones to get information, but there’s relatively little academic work being done to explore what works and what doesn’t work. What things can uniquely be done on mobile devices to experiment with new types of mobile apps? So I would love — or, actually, I plan to — include mobile in the things that I’m developing at Duke.

Tom Rosenstiel had a piece in Poynter a few weeks ago about responsive design. It’s great, but it ignores the way that consumers are using their mobile devices to get information, because they are very task-oriented. They want to know how did the Washington Nationals do yesterday, or what is the weather today — whereas news organizations have tended to focus their apps on very broad things. You know: “Here’s everything that’s in the paper today.”

So I thought Tom’s piece, which was actually a literature review of several things that have been done recently, pointed to a real opportunity for the Reporters’ Lab, that we can help news organizations develop more specific mobile apps that target a specific need of a consumer.

O’Donovan: So that’s one facet of the work that you’ll be doing, but you also have to teach classes. I was reading about the two classes you’ll be teaching — I would love if you would give us a little taste of the syllabi.
Adair: So, the ethics class, which is called News as a Moral Battleground, is going to focus on three things. Fabrication and plagiarism, which we can sort of lump together some, and then off-the-record and background sourcing. So, first on the plagiarism and fabrication, I want to really help the students dig deep into the incidents of plagiarism and fabrication and try to understand what are the circumstances under which this happens, and look at some of the famous episodes and also some of the not-so-famous episodes, and see what are the common denominators. What are the warning signs — if you become an editor, what do you need to watch out for?

I think that class will be not just about journalism and ethics, because I think everybody pretty much agrees that fabrication and plagiarism are no-nos — but I want to delve a little bit into the psychology of someone who does something like this, what’s going through their mind and what’s the calculation that they made. So that’s half the semester.

Then the other half will focus on sourcing. I’m going to have the students compile a database of instances where a news organization has relied on an unnamed source. The database is going to identify how the source was identified in the news article — the full context of it, if there was an explanation given, like “the source was not identified because they were not authorized to speak for the administration,” or whatever.

Throughout the semester, the students will have to come with one entry into that database and then we’re going to use the database for assignments. Two or three times during the semester, they will have to go to the database and either analyze one episode of this and the pros and cons — Was there a benefit in this source not being named? Did the public get good information out of it that it was worth the tradeoff of not knowing who it really was? Was there enough information given that the reader could assess the motives and accuracy of the person making the claim. And then, also, what are the patterns? As the students compile the database — it’s sort of like crowdsourced teaching, is how I would characterize it. They are going to create the database, and then they’re going to use it?

O’Donovan: Is that something that will be open to future classes or other students in other institutions?
Adair: I haven’t gone that far yet. Right now there’s a guy, Mark Schaver, at the Louisville Courier-Journal, with a bot that runs a list every day of things like this. What i want to do is something that has more detail to it. I think potentially there could be good value in it as we build it and build it. But his thing is really interesting, because it gives you a snapshot, for the moment, of the latest things — the latest quotes that are from unnamed sources. And then you can also look at it by news organization.

What he doesn’t do much, though, which I’d like to do, is use this kind of database to see patterns and help the students learn about both the benefits, because there are benefits to using unnamed sources, but also the drawbacks. So, that’s that class.

The other class, we’re tentatively calling Presidency and Press in a New Media Age, and this one is going to draw a fair amount from my experience covering the Bush White House in the first term and the Bush reelection campaign, and my experience covering Washington since I got here in 1997, or about 16 years. The big themes for that class will be how have presidents communicated with the American people through the media in the past, and how are they doing it today? How have they tried to do an end run around the press both then and now?

You know, lately, there’s been a lot of focus on White House reporters complaining that the White House tries to go around them and use social media and YouTube and all sorts of things to communicate with people. But this is really an old theme — you can go back through many presidents. The first one, who was president when I was in college, was Reagan, and the complaint was Reagan was doing the same thing. So we’re going to look at relations with the press and the president, the changing nature of communications with White House reporters. In the old days, my father-in-law, Frank Swoboda, who covered the White House for UPI under Johnson, he had much more contact with President Johnson than any White House reporter today has with President Obama. Back then, there were fewer White House reporters and there were fewer TV cameras that were on all the time, and the White House briefings were not televised, so most of the communication took place like that.

O’Donovan: Can you explain a little more about the Reagan-era analog to today’s social media workaround?
Adair: Reagan had a troika of aides — Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese, and James Baker. Michael Deaver was renowned for staging media events and he took the presidential speech, the presidential press conference, into a new level of sophistication as a media event with staged lighting and powerful backdrops. It was Deaver who really elevated the presidential event to art form. Even then, there were complaints — “Hey, the President’s trying to go around the press and communicate directly to the people!”

It’s funny. It makes me sound like an old guy, and I don’t think of myself as an old guy, but it was funny to hear the complaints about the Obama administration, because it was the same complaints the guys who covered Reagan in the ’80s were making, and I’m sure if we go back in time we’ll hear other kinds of complaints about access and things like that. Presidents have always wanted to communicate directly with their audience. Who wants to go through a filter if you can communicate directly? But in an era of AP, UPI, The New York Times, CBS, ABC and NBC, you had to go through the media — indeed it was The Media — which was also a filter, you know, and limited how much presidents could communicate with the people.

Today, if you’ve read the criticism, one of the criticisms is the Obama White House hasn’t given an interview to The New York Times or The Washington Post in months and months and months. Why? Because it can reach people much more directly by going through local TV stations and YouTube and Twitter and lots of other ways.

So we’re going to study all of that and look at both what’s new but also what I would summarize with the Simon and Garfunkel lyric: “After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.” These are old themes.

O’Donovan: Two things: One, do you think access has the same value that it used to? And two, how do you teach someone who’s really accustomed to seeing Obama speak directly into YouTube, that there used to be a different level of filtering there?
Adair: It’s important for today’s reporters and today’s college students to realize both that these are old themes, but also that, there are a multitude of new ways that presidents can communicate directly with people, therefore making reporters less relevant.

One of the things that’s funny about Washington is that, a friend of mine who used to cover the White House, who says “the only good thing about covering the White House is telling people that that’s what you do.” He was referring to his frustration at how controlled the message is and how controlled the access is. There’s a lot less access today than there was in the 1960s, but there are also a lot more data that’s available. We have Recovery.gov, which has put this treasure trove of data on the web, available for anybody, on how the economic stimulus was spent. Well, that wasn’t available in 1968 when my father-in-law was covering the White House. So there are pros and cons to both approaches, and one thing I’d like to do — I look at these courses as much for me to explore as help make sense of all this, I see a class as a sort of living inquiry into a subject, and as I teach the class in future semesters, that it will evolve.

O’Donovan: What are your expectations for your students, in terms of their relationship to truth and accuracy? I was talking with some people last week who are involved in news literacy education for younger students, and there’s a huge focus there in helping young people parse out truth from fact and something that is well sourced from what isn’t. Do you expect the difference between true and false will be a high priority to them?
Adair: I am aware of the need for students to learn about news literacy. I was talking to Charlotte Grimes, the Knight professor at Syracuse, a couple of weeks ago, and we were both saying that news literacy is really important these days and that we make a lot of assumptions about how people consume news, that they understand the difference between an opinion article and a news article. And then you get a call from a reader and you realize this person has no clue what the difference is between a column and a news article. Not to mention that it’s complicated in a new media age, because you have things that blend that. One of my favorite blogs is TechCrunch, and I learn the news from TechCrunch through thoroughly reported opinion pieces — yet I realize that they are opinion, not news.

So I think it’s really important to teach that, and keep that teaching up to date It’s not like we have to say, “When you turn to page A16, that’s the editorial page.” That’s not going to mean a lot to college students who are not reading a print edition.

O’Donovan: If one of your students came to you and said, I hope to have a job in a newsroom someday. If I want to innovate, if I want to disrupt something or build something new, how do you communicate that idea with management in a way that gets the kind of resources and attention and support that you need?
Adair: I was very fortunate at the [Tampa Bay] Times, when I went to the editors with PolitiFact they embraced it immediately. They knew that it would be a disruptive force, but they embraced that right away. I guess what I would do is advise the student to make a constructive pitch and to recognize where the newsroom managers are coming from. But I think the culture in American newsrooms is increasingly willing to innovate and try new things, and we’ve seen that with our state partners at PolitiFact. These papers were willing to take a little bit of a risk and try something new, and associate their brand with our brand, and I think that they see it has paid off. I think there’s a willingness there, the students just have to write the right pitch.
O’Donovan: In terms of PolitiFact going forward — you’re still going to be involved?
Adair: I’m going to be a contributing editor, and I plan to be very involved in our effort in Australia. We are working with Peter Fray, the former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, who we are licensing PolitiFact to so he can develop PolitiFact Australia. So I’m working on a training program — I’m going to go to Australia at the end of the month and train journalists how to use the Truth-o-Meter and how to do PolitiFact journalism and use it for their election this year. They have an election in September. So that’ll be my biggest responsibility as a contributing editor in the summer, and then after that I think I’m available to help in any way.

I’ve had a wonderful 24 years with this organization, and six specifically with PolitiFact, and I’m looking forward to helping PolitiFact continue to grow.

O’Donovan: PolitiFact got a fair amount of criticism during the 2012 election. is there anything you plan to tweak — any small changes to the approach?
Adair: We made some in early 2012. We took a lot of criticism in early 2012 about some of our ratings. Some of it was really just partisan, but some of it was legitimate enough that we felt we did need to tweak our procedures, and so we did.

We added a new process when we do a Truth-o-Meter rating, where we ask four questions during the discussion about the rating. Those questions have really helped us zero in on the right Truth-o-Meter rating, and I think since then we’ve had fewer problems where we felt, “Oh man, we made the wrong call on that one.” So we did tweak the Truth-o-Meter a year ago, and I think it has really helped.

Looking ahead to 2014, I think PolitiFact’s focus is going to be on growth, on finding more partners in different places, both small news organizations that want to use PolitiFact for state and local, but also to see how it works in Australia, and see if we can replicate this in other countries. PolitiFact has inspired fact-checking sites around the world — Sweden, Norway, Spain, France. The Obameter has inspired similar things on President Mohamed Morsi and in France on President Hollande, and we would love to continue that and also see to what extent we can get the PolitiFact to work other places. That’s why we’re doing in the venture in Australia.

O’Donovan: Was there ever any temptation to make PolitiFact a standalone entity?
Adair: We had talked about lots of different structures over the years, but I think PolitiFact works great as part of the Tampa Bay Times, which has made the commitment to it from the start. I know there are no plans to change that. PolitiFact is a core brand of the Times, and I think what we’ve seen is it makes sense to associate PolitiFact with news organizations, if you go to Atlanta or Austin or Cleveland (some of our state partners), what you’ll see is PolitiFact Georgia, Texas, Ohio are very much now recognized as brands of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Austin American-Statesman, and The Plain Dealer. So I think PolitiFact works well as a brand of a larger news organization.
O’Donovan: It’s a big transition to go from being in the newsroom to being in an academic institution, and I think some people who have been in an academic setting for a long time sort of hunger for real-world experiences. Is there any one piece of wisdom, coming fresh from D.C., any one experience or piece of knowledge that you would want to impart to all your students?
Adair: I think I would use the phrase “go narrow, go deep.” That is a phrase that is the signature phrase of the editor of the Tampa Bay Times, Neil Brown. He uses it to encourage the reporters at our paper to tell bigger stories through a single thing, a single episode, a single person. I think the same wisdom applies in academia. If students can find one thing to really dig into in a serious, in-depth way, I think it teaches much bigger and broader lessons.
                                   
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