How to Be Your Own Fact-Checker During the Presidential Debate
Sometimes, if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself.
This year's presidential election campaign has forced fact-checkers to work overtime. Republican nominee Donald Trump rattles off inaccurate statements or flat-out lies on a regular basis (a POLITICO analysis clocked him at one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds) and his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while far more honest than Trump, doesn't have a flawless track record either.
To make matters worse, ahead of Monday's first debate, moderators and network commentators have been wavering on whether or not it's their job to fact-check the statements candidates make in real time. That means the whole event could be filled with lies and half-truths being flung from either side of the stage, with no accountability. What's a truth-seeking, conscientious voter to do? Be your own fact-checker, with a little advice from the team at PolitiFact, a politics fact-checking project run by the Tampa Bay Times:
1. Pay attention when something gets disputed on stage
"If I was just an average voter and I wanted to know when something is being said that's not true, I'd listen to what the other candidate says," Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, told me over the phone. "We always check something when it's disputed on the debate stage. I expect the candidates to interject and interrupt each other and say 'that's not true.' We focus in on those moments."
The two candidates disagreeing is an expected reality of debate, but if Trump or Clinton calls out the other on a stated fact, that's a big signal that one of them doesn't have the facts straight.
2. Know the difference between fact and opinion
As Greg Borowski, the editor of PolitiFact Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote in a fact-checking tipsheet, "you can't fact-check an opinion" and "you can't fact-check the future." That means vague, opinion-based statements like "taxes are too high" or predictions for the future, like "I will never raise taxes," aren't possible to verify, so take them as what they are: that candidate's point of view, or promises.
If a statement is based on something you can check—a candidate makes a claim about his or her record, or cites statistics about the current state of the country—that's perfect fodder for a fact-checking excursion.
"Try to put aside rooting for your own team."
3. Start with the basics
"The first thing I do is Google something to see if someone has fact-checked it before, if it's been written about before," Holan said. "But when I get the results back, I look really closely at the source."
Holan said to look for non-partisan, reliable sources such as research groups or dedicated fact-checking organizations, and always pull together lots of different sources, not just rely on one tidbit.
4. Cultivate a stream of fact-checking information
Sites like PolitiFact, which has already done a lot of the legwork to fact-check for tonight's debate, will be live fact-checking during the debate. Other fact-checkers, like the Washington Post's fact-checker blog and FactCheck.org, will be providing close coverage too.
Following multiple professional fact-checkers will allow you to spot any diverging conclusions and can be a platform for your own research, but don't be afraid to look for non-expert sources too. Twitter and Reddit will be teeming with political junkies sharing fact-check sources and personal anecdotes. While these sources can often be wrong (double check any statements you read here on your own), they can sometimes be just as useful as hard facts, such as when some personal letters helped verify Hillary Clinton's story about getting a disappointing response to a letter she sent to NASA as a little girl.
5. Don't let your emotions get the better of you
"Try to put aside rooting for your own team so you can look at the evidence in a open-minded way," Holan said. "People are emotionally invested, and I get that, but if we're aware of it, we can put it aside and look at things objectively."
That means even if you candidate of choice is the one making a statement that causes you to raise your eyebrows, you should do the same legwork you'd do for his or her opponent. Even if it doesn't sway your vote, it will make you a more informed voter come election day—and isn't that what these debates are all about?