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JournalistWe are the Fact Checkers of The Washington Post, the ones who give out the Pinocchios. Ask Us Anything!

Oct 20th 2017 by washingtonpost • 21 Questions • 86 Points

Hello reddit! We are the Fact Checker team of The Washington Post. We rate statements by politicians from a range to one to four Pinocchios, one for being a minor shading of facts, and four for being an outright lie. If the statement is true, you get a rare Geppetto. You can read our entire fact checking history here.

The Fact Checker team consists of we three:

Hi I’m Glenn Kessler. I edit and write for The Fact Checker at The Washington Post. I’ve been doing this for seven years, after covering just about every building in Washington during a journalism career spanning more than three decades. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands and we always had 3 or 4 cats in our house. Find me on Twitter at @GlennKesslerWP.

I’m Michelle Ye Hee Lee. I was a reporter on Washington Post Fact Checker for the past three years. This week I started a new job here on the political investigations/enterprise team, focusing on money in politics. On Fact Checker, I wrote a lot about immigration, veterans, crime and abortion. I’m responsible for getting LOLcat gifs into The Fact Checker weekly newsletter. Find me on Twitter/Facebook/Insta/Snap: @myhlee

And I’m Meg Kelly, I produce videos and sometimes report for Washington Post Fact Checker. Before joining in May, I produced videos, photos and stories for NPR politics. We only have opinions on cats at the Fact Checker — and I’m the odd-woman out, I’m allergic. Find me on Twitter: @mmkelly22.

Here’s our proof. We’ll be getting started at noon. AMA!

EDIT: Typo, it's outright "lie," not law.

EDIT 2: We're done for now! Thank you r/iAMA for allowing us to do this, and thanks to you all for your curiosity and great questions! We may return later to answer some late questions. Have a great weekend!

Q:
  • What has been you "favorite" Pinocchio to give out so far?
  • Which Pinnochio has made you the angriest?
A:

Hi, this is Glenn. Having hundreds of fact checks, it's hard to pick a favorite. The most popular fact check ever was one on Sean Hannity's false claim that Trump had sent his private jet to rescue some Marines stranded at an airbase. Absolutely not true, as I documented. You can find that here. I enjoyed doing a series of fact checks in 2015 documenting how many statistics on sex trafficking on based on flimsy or nonexistent data. In response, advocacy groups and lawmakers stopped using these stats. It's an important issues, but you only harm your cause if you rely on bad data.

We don't get angry at The Fact Checker. We just go to where the facts lead us.


Q:
  • What has been you "favorite" Pinocchio to give out so far?
  • Which Pinnochio has made you the angriest?
A:

We're not media critics, and our work mainly focuses on people in power and organizations that influence policy (PACs/super PACs, lobbying/industry groups, etc). But sometimes when we see certain stories that are not being covered accurately by news organizations or headlines that are misleading/false, we write about them. Here are some examples. --Michelle


Q:

How did you get started as fact-checkers and what drew you to that particular niche?

A:

From Glenn: The Washington Post asked me to revive The Fact Checker as a permanent feature in January, 2011. Previously it had existed just for the 2008 election. But as a political reporter, economic correspondent and diplomatic correspondent for nearly three decades, I had long specialized in reporting that explained and demystified policy. In fact, when I was the chief political correspondent for Newsday in 1996, I wrote the very first newspaper fact check -- a 3,000 word look at the claims and counterclaims of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. I was frustrated because I did not have enough space in my daily reporting to explain why much of what they claimed was wrong! Here's a link to that fact check


Q:

How did you get started as fact-checkers and what drew you to that particular niche?

A:

I started my professional career at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, and one of my first responsibilities there was to help launch AZ Fact Check during the 2010 midterm election. So I was familiar with fact-checking early on, and experienced first-hand just how much voters appreciated having this new initiative. When I applied for the Fact Checker job, I wanted to be a part of the public service it provides to voters on a national level, to hold politicians accountable for the things they say and promise. --Michelle


Q:

You don't know Jack shit about me. I read every source I can get my hands on and find the truth somewhere in between. I watch Fox news as often as any other MSM (which isn't often). Not responding to the rest of your drivel because I didn't bother to finish reading it. Not worth my time if it's as wrong and ridiculous as the first two sentences. I hope you have a lovely day.

A:

As a video producer, I always like when we get to tell the whole arc of a broader story because it helps put all of the pieces together in one place. Two examples come to mind: Michelle and I worked on a video about former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the second is a piece about Comey and Trump's dueling narratives that Glenn and I worked on. — Meg


Q:

Why not quite the part that explains why he was determined to not be telling the truth?

Normally, this kind of slippery language would be worth Two Pinocchios. The 20 million figure does include people paying a penalty and people claiming an exemption. While Trump slipped in “received an exemption,” he strongly suggests the figure is really about people paying a penalty — “they’re actually doing that rather than being forced to buy insurance” — and so the number lacked significant context.

But Trump tips this number into Three Pinocchio territory when he further claims that is “something that nobody has ever heard of or thought could happen.” Actually, the number of people paying the penalty is declining, not increasing, while the number of exemptions grew because states led by Republicans refused to accept funds to expand Medicaid for their citizens. So the number really does not show what Trump claims it does.

20 million people are not paying the penalty.

The exemptions are happening because of States not expanding Medicaid.

And "Nobody has ever heard of or thought this could hapoen"

A:

from Glenn. Uh, if you read the full fact check carefully you will understand why I reached the conclusion of Three Pinocchios. It was for his entire statement, not just that number. And as I documented, the 20-million figure was misleading. You are simply quoting the section in which I explain his math.

Here's the explanation of Three Pinocchios in this case:

Normally, this kind of slippery language would be worth Two Pinocchios. The 20 million figure does include people paying a penalty and people claiming an exemption. While Trump slipped in “received an exemption,” he strongly suggests the figure is really about people paying a penalty — “they’re actually doing that rather than being forced to buy insurance” — and so the number lacked significant context.

But Trump tips this number into Three Pinocchio territory when he further claims that is “something that nobody has ever heard of or thought could happen.” Actually, the number of people paying the penalty is declining, not increasing, while the number of exemptions grew because states led by Republicans refused to accept funds to expand Medicaid for their citizens. So the number really does not show what Trump claims it does.


Q:

Do you experience harassment as a result of the work you do?

A:

I wrote an essay about that after the 2016 election. --Michelle


Q:

What is your advice for college/early-career journalists who want to pursue a career in fact-checking journalism?

A:

Fact-checking is definitely a growth area in journalism -- there are more than 120 fact-checking organizations around the world now, up from just four in 2011 -- but the best tools for fact-checking are basic reporting skills. I would not recommend going straight into fact-checking right out of college. I only started doing it after years in journalism -- and the Post asked me to do because I had covered the White House, Congress, State Dept, Treasury Dept. etc.

We are searching for a replacement for Michelle and the best candidates are people with a solid grounding in a variety of state or local reporting jobs, along with demonstrated investigative skills. So i would recommend doing that first before you turn your hand at fact-checking. --Glenn


Q:

Thank you! And congrats, Michelle, on your new role at WaPo! :)

A:

Thank you! I agree with Glenn. Work hard, dig hard, get solid reporting experience owning a local/state beat. File lots of records requests to verify what politicians are telling you, be skeptical, ask tough questions. Over time you'll develop quality, investigative clips to launch you into your own fact-checking job. Good luck! --Michelle


Q:

Fact-checking is definitely a growth area in journalism

In the nineties in journalism school, we were told it was part of the job of pretty much any journalist...

A:

This is Glenn. We use social media to promote our work, but we also use it to engage with readers. About half of our fact checks are the result of reader inquiries. The actual fact checking hasn't changed -- that is just basic reporting -- but social media has really helped us to find statements to fact check, engage with readers and also learn if we have made mistakes.


Q:

Lots of times it seems like fact checkers go for the granular rather than the broad picture, since a grain can be more clearly determined to be right or wrong. But obviously it's a lot less important than the broad picture. 1, Do you agree about this, and 2, Is there a way that factcheckers can 'pick their battles' so that they do spend time on the most important things? (Or at least acknowledge to the reader what is most important, so a casual reader doesn't come away from the encounter less informed than before.)

A:
  1. We try not to be nit-picky. We do look at the specific claim, or the specific number, but also consider it in the broader context, and look at the entirety of the claim. We work to provide a public service by digging into the details to help explain the broader policy issue or the subject matter.
  2. We focus claims that are newsworthy and are a matter of domestic or international policy. For example, if Congress is debating health care, we dig into a health care claim because politicians will be talking about it that day/week, and because readers will care about it. You can read more about our methodology and standards here. --Michelle

Q:

Does the WaPo have any intention of keeping editorials on the editorial page? Thanks!

A:

This is Glenn. The news side has nothing to do with the editorial pages. The Post has started labeling every article on the web so you can quickly see whether it is Opinion, analysis, news or whatever. "Opinion" is a sign that it comes from the editorial page.


Q:

Do you have a GoFundMe for booze? Or, does the Post supply it? Really, nobody should do your job sober.

A:

From Glenn: Ha! There are some days I am happy to have a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. Never thought of expensing it, though...


Q:

Why is your newspaper so anti-Israel? There is little evidence of fact checking but much evidence of bias

A:

From Glenn: Having covered diplomatic for 9 years, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I can assure you the newspaper is not anti-Israel. The biggest problem is there was never enough space to offer every nuance and historical point that readers appeared to think needed to be in each story. And both sides have their own narratives. If you interested, here's a fact check I once did on whether Obama was anti-Israel. And here's one on a John Kerry speech.


Q:

Given how disconnected the current President appears to be from real facts, what do you believe the tipping point will be for the fact checking to have a tangible effect on his remaining time in office?

A:

From Glenn: Any White House learns that lost credibility is not easily earned back. Look at George W. Bush and claims about the Iraq war or Barack Obama and promises about keeping your doctor. Trump in particular has pushed the envelope on truth-telling, in particular because he doubles down on false claims and keeps repeating them. That can only hurt him in the long run.


Q:

No separate channel though?

A:

Our inbox here is open! You can also email the reporters directly. Many reddit users here have helpfully pointed out typos and other mistakes, and I would reach out to editors to make those changes. They're always always appreciated, proof that even editors need editors, and just a small example of how the public keeps us journalists accountable. - Gene


Q:

On reddit.com/user/washingtonpost I do not see a way to send a PM.

Update: Thank you! "More Options" was what I was overlooking.

A:

Click under "More Options" and it should say "Send a private message."


Q:

How do you go on checking for facts ? By this I mean do you go and search for 3-4 other sources that have the same information or just 1 reliable source is enough ?

A:

We first reach out to the speaker for the information/data they used, as the burden of proof is on the speaker. We review their data, then do our independent research and reporting. This entails talking to several subject-matter experts, researching various reports, searching through news archives, and more. We rely on many sources of information to come to an objective conclusion for the rating. --Michelle


Q:
  1. Have you gotten a raise in the last 10 months

  2. How do you organize trumps various mischaracterizations and outright lies? Doesn’t excel have a row limit

A:
  1. Welp I just got promoted, so…
  2. We keep track of every false or misleading claim by President Trump. As of our latest update on Oct. 10, we counted 1,318 false or misleading claims (many of them are repeats). Check out our interactive tracker. We use Google Sheets to keep track of everything. –Michelle

Q:

well, how long have you been training in fact checking, to reach the required level?

A:

I did government accountability/watchdog reporting for about 4 years before I came to Fact Checker in November 2014. --Michelle


Q:

What do you do to fight the pressure for false balance in your work? Do your editors push you to go easier on Republicans or harder on Democrats given the huge disparity in bullshit generated from each side and a desire to maintain the appearance of neutrality? How often do you fail?

A:

From Glenn: The editors from time to time might suggest a possible fact check or pass on a reader request. There is no pressure for "false balance." After 35 years in the business, I have found there is no difference between the parties on this simple fact: Both will stretch the truth if they think it will give them a political advantage.