Stop right there: A guide to how we make our calls

Posted January 1, 2015
Updated July 13, 2015

— Maybe you've been reading about a political speech or listening to a television commercial and something strikes you as, well, not quite right.

Us too. Which is why the fact check is a useful and popular tool for WRAL News and WRAL.com.

This post updates our original fact-checking scale and answers a few of the more frequently asked questions we've gotten from readers.

What is a fact check? Shouldn't all your facts be checked?

Yes, journalists do pride ourselves on having the, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" mentality. And yes, it is routine to double check names, spellings, numbers, etc., in our stories.

As we're using the term here, fact-checking connotes a particular subspecies of journalism that challenges assertions made by politicians, business leaders and others on the public stage. FactCheck.org, Politifact and the Washington Post's Fact Checker are probably the three best known brands in the fact-checking business, although many news outlets have regular fact-checking features.

The idea is to tackle an assertion and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Fact checks developed, in part, as an antidote to problems associated with political reporting that attempted to be fair to both sides of a partisan debate but sometimes ended up with he-said, she-said stories. Sometimes, there really is a right answer, and a fact check aims to bring that to readers and viewers.

You can read more about the rise of the fact-checking movement from the Washington Post's stalwart fact checker, as well as the movement's modern discontents from a recent @NCCapitol column.

What will you check?

Just about anything. During campaign season, we spend a lot of time looking at political ads, which can seem both ubiquitous and persistently dubious. But we'll run down statements from candidate debates, floor speeches in the legislature, pundits on weekend chat shows, fliers put out by businesses or anything else that has become part of the public conversation.

Commonly, we bring a fact check to bear when the purported fact goes from being part of a story to becoming a story unto itself. So, that meme everyone is passing around Facebook or the pithy one-liner in a fundraising email are both fair game.

Why do you favor Democrats/Republicans/etc...?

We don't. During the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, for example, WRAL News fact checked, and found fault with, Republican and Democratic speakers in roughly equal numbers. We choose fact check subjects by how pervasive a particular assertion is and whether a fact check will lend light to a larger policy issue. If you have a suggestion for a fact check, please click on the reporter contact link at the bottom of this story or email mbinker (at) wral.com.

What's your process?

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 research?

With regard to television ads, 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 a document is available, we will link to it. In the case of statements made by individuals, businesses or groups outside of a campaign context, we will ask them for their sources.

After that, we will conduct our own research, looking for documents, videos, news reports and other material that might bolster a claim or knock it down. In general, we try to prove someone is right before we try to prove them wrong. 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, or somewhere in between.

Why is context so important?

It isn't unusual for a fact check to say a particular piece of data has been "cherry-picked" or has been offered out of context. We have seem numerous examples of true facts being used in misleading ways. So, our fact checks aim to help you understand both the specific facts in play as well as how those facts are being employed. If a statement uses facts that are true but can leave readers with an impression that is wrong, it doesn't get a clean bill of health.

How do you make the call?

On each fact check, we'll offer "the call," a quick graphical reference and synopsis to show you whether the statement is question is reliable, a real howler or somewhere in between. Here's our fact-checking scale as it has been revised at the beginning of 2015:

Fact Check Green Green light: Go ahead, run with it. The WRAL News fact check has found no materially incorrect assertions or misleading statements. 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 contains a minor but significant factual error or is lacking important context. A yellow light is frequently the call when a statement has some basis in fact but has taken a bad turn along the way. You may also see a yellow light when the speaker in question tried to get something right but made an honest mistake that misinterprets, but doesn't completely butcher, a piece of data.

Fact Check Red Red light: Stop right there. The statement in question is demonstrably false or unfounded. Even if some of the numbers or other facts cited are correct, the overall conclusion does not hold up.

Fact Check Moving Violation Moving Violation: Someone has just blown through the stop sign and earned a rhetorical citation – the kind that would land you in front of a judge if committed on the road. The statement in question is not just wrong, but was offered with gusto. Either the person speaking ignored easily accessible resources that could have corrected the statement, has persisted in putting something forward even though he or she knows better, or has offered a statement with no reasonable basis in fact. These statements frequently verge on the ridiculous. (This category was added to our fact-checking scale in January 2015.)

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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