Fact-Checking the Debates: Tools for Everyone

Fact-checking efforts are making debates more informative, often in near real-time.


If there’s a silver lining to the number of conspiracy theories, mistruths, and downright make-believe in this year’s presidential debates, it’s the rise of fact-checking efforts that are making debates more informative, often in near real-time.

News outlets including NPR and The Washington Post have dedicated newsroom resources, joining fact-checking sites such as PolitiFact (a project of the Tampa Bay Times), and Factcheck.org (run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center) to provide quick analysis and added context.

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In Colorado, the CU News Corps, a University of Colorado program run by journalism faculty and students, is fact-checking election debates for the Denver Post.

And for the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday night, the Duke Reporters’ Lab will test FactPopUp, a free Chrome extension that provides on-screen fact-checking based on tweets by a PolitiFact editor.

There’s a “tremendous appetite for fact-checking,” NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben wrote last month, providing a good overview of the growth of outlets (29 counted in this study, 24 of which were created since 2010), as well as the real-world limitations of truth-telling in a fragmented information ecosystem.

Debate viewers have also taken up the role of fact-checking, sharing quotes and links supporting or debunking the candidates’ statements. The Internet Archive’s TV News Archive has made it easier for the public to get involved this election cycle by providing a debate live stream that anyone can use—as the debate is still happening.   

“By offering video in near real-time, we hope to give the journalists, researchers, and the public tools to bring context and reason to what they’re hearing,” said Nancy Watzman, managing editor of Television Archive. “Fact-checkers can link directly to the statements they’re fact checking; journalists can offer commentary while referring to the original source.”

The video feed for the final presidential debate in Las Vegas will be available here and ready to go just before the start of the debate. The feed, along with a rough transcription, can be broken into customizable segments for website embeds and posting to social media. Here are a few examples of how video from the Oct. 9 town hall debate was used. Watzman and others have also tweeted clips paired with links to fact-checking posts published by FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

Jessica Clark, founder of Dot Connector Studio and a consultant to the TV News Archive, offers an easy-to-follow primer for selecting and posting debate clips and quotes, along with seven examples of how to use them. Yes, there’s the beat-the-press satisfaction, but more than that, it enables viewers to determine what they think is important enough to be highlighted and shared.

As any debate viewer active on social media can attest, it can be difficult to actively watch, read, and comment during a debate; clipping videos adds another time challenge, no matter how easy the process. So for tonight’s debate, TV News Archive is going to clip quotes that seem ripe for sharing and make those available as quickly as possible during the debate.

That’s not all that’s offered. Building off technology developed for the Political TV Ad Archive, which tracks political ads in select television markets for news analysis and fact-checking, the Television News Archive is tracking broadcast and cable news coverage to show which debate exchanges get replayed the most on news programs.

“We offer another layer of understanding by crunching the data on how TV news is presenting the debates to viewers,” said Watzman.

Here’s how it works: A tool called audfprint, developed by Dan Ellis at Columbia University, converts media files into audio fingerprints. Using the Duplitron, an open-source technology created by Dan Schultz, the TV News Archive takes audio fingerprints created via audfprint and uses them to identify debate clips used in TV news programs in the hours and days following the debate.

Using this data, the New York Times created a visual timeline of cable news coverage following the first presidential debate, with separate lines for CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. In another example, the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of morning shows tracked by the TV News Archive showed Donald Trump’s threat to jail Hillary Clinton over her handling of classified emails was the second debate’s top replay moment.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center, continuing its work on debates, will integrate this information into research surveys to better understand how television covers the debates and what voters learn from that coverage. As of this moment, voters are already learning political debates require a closer read.