More contextualization and fact checking of politicians helps improve election coverage

By Eric Andriolo

During election season, political coverage takes on a central role in society and journalists come under pressure to improve news gathering. In the run up to the presidential election in the United States, fact checking of political speeches has become a growing trend.

This new approach is attributed in part to online media since the quantity of information available and the number of sources facilitates the correction of errors and lies in candidate speeches.

But the web is not a foolproof tool when it comes to verifying sources for a story. "There is so much false stuff on the Internet that it could be no help at all for verification. There has to be some kind of credibility behind what is being claimed," said Sylvia Moretzsohn, journalist and professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense.

Even trusted sources, like government websites that guarantee access to documents, have their limits, observed Diego Escosteguy, director of the magazine Época in Brazil. "Big findings almost always involve people. Even though you find a really important document, almost always, in Brazil, you need someone to check it. We need to look at the document with a little less awe."

Despite these limitations, some digital tools created to help journalists fact check have proven effective. One is Poligraft, a program that analyzes text in articles and finds connections between characters mentioned and organizations. Another Pulitzer Prize-winning tool is PolitiFact, a website that uses a "truth-o-meter" to measure the veracity of political statements.

On the eve of municipal elections in Brazil, the online version of the newspaper O Globo created a "promise-o-meter" to measure public opinion on promises candidates make.

These initiatives try to do away with a bad journalistic habit: the news story based in declarations, with little context and weak fact-checking. “I think that it is a professional self-defense mechanism that has become a regular practice. It’s a type of journalism that tries to shield the journalist from any kind of responsibility regarding what’s being published,” said Escosteguy, who pointed out that the responsibility of fact-checking has to rest upon the reporter, especially when official sources don’t always work that way. "That's what journalism is. You have to know that the advisors' allegiance is with the candidate, not the truth, and there's a good chance they're lying."

What appears to be missing from election coverage is the same thing worrying voters: investigation into the candidates. "Are their numbers correct? Are their proposals factual? Did the candidate do what they promised during their previous term in office?" asked journalist Fabiano Angélico, investigator for FGV and ex-project coordinator for the NGO Transparência Brasil.

A widely-held criticism of electoral coverage is "horse-race politics," a term coined by journalist Thomas B. Littlewood to describe approaching political coverage like a spectator sport.

It could be argued that this is a natural part of the political process. "You don't have to flee from the point of view that an election is a competition. The logic of a campaign favors research. It's no wonder that the press runs into it," said Escosteguy, adding that "it's important that journalists understand research and numbers."

On the other hand, the media's charge remains focused on the contextualization of the news. "It's necessary to compare these voter trends with other aspects of life. Only then will journalism help society understand it's place in time," said Angélico.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.