Red light, green light, fact check: A guide to how we make our calls

Posted February 13, 2014
Updated March 28, 2014

— "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," is the oldest, or at least most shopworn, of journalism bromides, often handed down as a warning to younger journalists to carefully check their facts before reporting. 

So why do we need a special category of reporting called "fact checking?" Shouldn't all facts that appear in our stories be fact checked? 

Fact checking, at least as the term has been applied over the past decade, refers to focused reporting on a single statement, idea or assertion that is in the news. Most frequently it has been applied to campaign commercials for political candidates, but fact checking practitioners have taken on everything from Sunday morning talk show appearances by pundits to floor speeches by Congressmen and viral emails. 

Fact checking comes to bear when an alleged fact goes from being part of a story to becoming a story unto itself. It may be getting passed from person-to-person on social media, or popping up as questions that a variety of public figures are having to address. Was the president born in America? (Yes.) Were people moving to North Carolina to take advantage of unemployment benefits? (Probably not.) Does a Republican Senate candidate really want to allow insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? (Not that we can see.)

This, of course, is not an original notion. FactCheck.org, Politifact, and the Washington Post's Fact Checker are probably the three best known brands in the fact checking business, although other news outlets such as USA Today and the Associated Press also do good work in the area. You will see us refer to the work other fact checkers from time to time when it is appropriate and saves us from reinventing the proverbial wheel. 

The process

Many of our fact checks will concern political commercials that you see on WRAL or FOX 50. In that case, we're offering more information to help our viewers understand what they're seeing on a daily basis. As time allows, we will also take on statements made by public figures on shows such as "On the Record" or elsewhere in their public life, such as in speeches or arguments in committee hearings. 

Any fact check begins with the person or organization making the statement. The most typical question we ask is "how do you know that?" Was the statement in question something that came from hearsay or is it backed up by university research? 

Most political campaigns and independent expenditure groups will provide a rundown of their campaign commercials with attribution pointing to where they drew specific facts. When such documents are available, we will link to them. 

In the case of a political attack or a statement focused on a particular public figure, we will also ask that figure for their response. 

Then we will conduct our own research, looking for documents, videos, news reports and other material that might bolster a claim. Our fact checks will include links to source material when available so viewers and readers can see what we're seeing. Often, we'll also call on experts in the field to help us understand why a particular statement might be true or false. 

The call

At the end of each fact check, we'll make "the call." This is where we'll tell you if, in our judgment, the statement is true, false or somewhere in the middle. As a way to help readers quickly scan for answers, we're going to use a traffic light system going forward. Here's how that will work. 

Fact Check Green Green light: Go ahead, run with it. A WRAL fact check has found no materially incorrect assertions or misleading statements. When you see the green light you can GO ahead and believe what you're hearing. We don't demand perfection in order to award a green light, but anything more than rounding error or a slip of the tongue will have us thinking about downgrading to a yellow light.  

Fact Check Yellow Yellow light: Slow down and use caution. The statement in question either contains an important factual error or is lacking important context that would help you understand the information better. This is common in campaign commercials that often cherry-pick facts and display them out of context. You may also see a yellow light when the speaker in question tried to get something right but made an honest mistake that doesn't impact the overall conclusion. 

Fact Check Red Red light: Stop right there. Our fact checking has raised serious problems with the statement in question. The speaker in question either displayed a willful disregard for the truth, made an accusation without a basis in fact or has gotten their math very wrong. 

Fact Check U-turn U-turn: The statement in question may or may not be correct. However, it represents a change in position for the individual in question. This indicates a "flip-flop." 


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