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College of Media partners with PolitiFact

Lou Jacobson of PolitiFact talks with WVU Reed College of Media students.

The 24-hour news cycle, coupled with a high-stakes political climate, has made for a ripe environment for “fake news.” In response, the West Virginia University Reed College of Media is partnering with PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization, to help train student journalists how to properly fact-check politicians.

Bob Britten, a teaching associate professor in the College of Media, is leading a class that has been working with Lou Jacobson, senior correspondent at PolitiFact, to cover events like Donald Trump’s rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on August 21. The students researched and investigated Trump’s claims and, depending on their findings, recommended a “Truth-O-Meter” ruling of “True”, “Mostly True,” “Half True,” “Mostly False,” "False” or “Pants on Fire,” in line with PolitiFact’s standards.

The students will continue to closely follow West Virginia politicians and government officials leading up to, and following, the mid-term elections on November 6. Once stories are approved by the editors at PolitiFact, the fact-checks will be published on PolitiFact’s website .

“This PolitiFact partnership is great because we are working with this award-winning fact-checking site at a time when getting it right is on everyone’s mind,” Britten said.  “Are we telling the truth, are politicians telling the truth and can we back up claims with real information? Not only does the partnership provide a real-world experience for students, but it shows we’re holding those in power accountable for what they say.” 

PolitiFact is a nonpartisan national news organization that was established in 2007 as a project for the Tampa Bay Times and is now owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The staff of writers and editors work to hold political leaders and politicians accountable for what they say and provide citizens with the factual information they need to make informed decisions in our democracy.

PolitiFact journalists look for statements from transcripts, speeches, news stories, press releases, campaign brochures, TV and social media. But, as the students are learning, not all claims are worthy of a fact-check. Only significant and verifiable claims make it to the research stage.  

The fact-checkers then use Google, online databases, consultation with experts and a review of publications to determine the Truth-O-Meter rating. A list of sources is published with every fact-check. The process takes time because it must be thorough and efficient, but the College of Media students have maintained a steady flow of content for PolitiFact.

"This is only the second university partnership we have done, and the first with primarily undergraduates, but so far, we have averaged two new published fact-checks a week, which is an impressive output.” Jacobson said. “The students and Professor Britten have been great to work with."

College of Media students have been populating the content for PolitiFact West Virginia since the semester started in August and will continue through the end of the year.