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Sept. 27, 2016, 2:36 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How NPR factchecked the first presidential debate in realtime, on top of a live transcript

More than 6 million users checked out the factcheck, sending record traffic (especially on mobile) to the site.

Hillary Clinton gave multiple shoutouts to fact checkers during the first presidential debate on Monday — but of course, directing viewers to her own site, which was churning out its own fact checks on Donald Trump’s statements throughout the night. Though TV networks (mostly) shied away from on-screen fact checking, other news organizations doubled down, in different ways. NPR, though, perhaps takes the cake with a team of more than 20 reporters offering real-time assessments on a live transcript of the debate.

NPR used a transcription service that provides closed captioning via its API and fed the transcript into a single Google Doc where staffers cleaned up the transcription as it came in. Reporters, editors, the visuals team, copyeditors, researchers — ultimately more than 50 people had access to the Google Doc — scrambled to add their annotations, which were individually approved, edited, and then published. A researcher was also backreading the transcript and annotations as they were published to correct typos. 90 NPR member stations embedded NPR.org’s live annotations on their own sites, according to a spokesperson.

“We already have pretty strong experience using Google Docs in this way, but what we’ve never done, and what was a big experiment for us this time, was having an external document feeding a Google Doc,” David Eads of the NPR Visuals Team said. (From the candidates’ mouths to the full transcription online, there was a one- to two-minute lag.) “On the technical side, we leaned heavily on Google Docs’ suggestion mode, which allowed reporters to just start typing an annotation straight into the document — a candidate’s record on childcare, or whatever it was — and gave us a chance to reformat and edit.”

“This is the first time we’ve done something of this scale. There’ve been predecessors, of course, and factchecking is something we hold dear at NPR, and we’ve done live annotation of speeches — but this had the biggest reach and required the biggest effort to process, partly because of the live transcript,” Amita Kelly, a digital editor on NPR’s Washington desk, said, pointing out that for other events such as the conventions, news outlets typically have access to prepared remarks ahead of time, and only have to deal with one speaker at a time on stage. They hoped to answer a few specific questions around what an audience might want from realtime fact-checking, including how much annotation was too much, and whether people even wanted to see a full transcript and would stay through the end, Kelly and Eads said.

NPR.org saw 7,413,000 pageviews from 6,011,000 users, and 22 percent of visitors to the page stayed all the way to the end, according to a spokesperson. Monday was NPR.org’s highest traffic day ever, with over 5 million visits. The annotated live transcript also saw 70 percent of its traffic coming from mobile devices, and people coming from mobile actually stayed four minutes longer than people coming from desktop, according to Eads.

“We think that might speak to the second screen, as well as to people who are in transit, who might want to be able to check this, people without access to sound — there could be a lot of reasons for that,” he said. “So this might be something we’d want to double down on — how to enhance that mobile experience.”

Photo by Colleen P (legos by Robbie), used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 27, 2016, 2:36 p.m.
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