Special topics course teams with CBS46 News to check veracity of political claims Is an official…
Georgia (Sep 15, 2014) —
Special topics course teams with CBS46 News to check veracity of political claims
Is an official for Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election campaign telling the truth when he asserts that the Governor’s record of appointing his campaign donors to important state boards is consistent with the historical trend of previous Georgia governors?
Ten Kennesaw State students in a new special topics course called “Politics and Fact-Checking” are putting that question to the test in their first attempt at helping Georgia voters weigh whether candidates, public figures and activists are telling the truth when they make claims in the midst of a heated political season.
The fact-checking class, led by Andrew Pieper, associate professor of political science, will rate political statements “A” to “F” during a weekly segment called “Truth Test” that will be aired on WCGL television’s CBS46 News. The one- to two-minute segment will air during the station’s 11 p.m. newscast for nine weeks, beginning Thursday, Sept. 18. The station will also post a weekly class report to its news website.
Pieper said Kennesaw State’s Department of Political Science and International Affairs moved quickly to partner with CBS46 News to offer an opportunity to engage students interested in politics, communication and research in the fast-paced fact-finding required to test political statements.
“What students are learning is that the research is extremely intensive,” Pieper said, noting that they are operating without the level of skill and resources of those working for professional fact-checking organizations. They are learning that the truth is often buried in piles of records and data, sometimes stretching back several decades, before digital records became the norm. It’s a tremendous learning opportunity, and a great skill- and resume-builder.”
The idea for the course grew organically from a meeting last March between CBS46 News officials and several area political analysts as they discussed the station’s coverage of the upcoming November elections. Pieper recalls that the subject of truth testing came up, and news anchor Scott Light threw out the idea that it would be great to have students involved in that.
Light, who moderates the “Truth Test” segment, said Pieper and administrators worked at “TV speed” to design and approve the course, which is being offered this fall as the POLS 4490 Special Topics course.
“The turn-around was incredible and that’s the way we like it,” Light said at the initial taping of the first segment. “We’re still working on story ideas that were proposed months ago. This is as excited as I’ve been about a community partnership.”
For its first truth test, the fact-checking class took on the statement by Brian Robinson, Gov. Deal’s re-election campaign spokesperson, regarding the Governor’s record of appointing his campaign donors to statewide boards.
As they will each week, Pieper and Light agreed on the test question. The students had five days to complete the research, analyze their findings, produce individual reports, then collaborate to produce a class report.
For the first truth test, the students focused on appointments to the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia and the Board of Natural Resources. They searched board minutes and “thousands” of press releases dating back to 1999 for the names of Deal’s appointees and those of former governors Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue. They retrieved and saved hundreds of documents — most in PDF format — and compiled them so they could be searched for relevant content. The teams tracked down separate campaign donor lists for Barnes’ 1998 campaign, Perdue’s in 2002 and 2006 and Deal’s in 2010 and 2014 and compiled a data base of all those who gave and how much. In the process, they also waded into issues of changing campaign financial disclosure laws, reconciled the spelling of names on various lists, and sorted those who gave as individuals, families and/or as heads of companies or organizations.
“I've learned that a lot of the information you need in order to fact-check even simple statements isn't as readily available as one might think,” said Taylor “T.J.” Wilkes, a senior political science major who served as a team report manager and will appear on the first “Truth Test” segment. “Even looking for something as simple as a list of public officials could still take tons of searching through documents.”
The intensity and pace of the class led team report manager Lauren Parkinson, a senior who recently changed her major to geography, to conclude, “Fact checking is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
To find out how Pieper and the students graded Brian Robinson’s statement about Gov. Deal’s record of making appointments to state boards, tune in to CBS46 News Sept. 18 at 11 p.m.
As for Wilkes and Parkinson, they issued ratings of their own — for the class.
“It's obviously thrilling [to get] the chance to work with CBS and to actually appear on the news, but the research I'm doing has been some of the most practical work I've done in college,” said Wilkes. “Overall, I would rate my experience with this course an A.”
Though she rated the class experience a “B+,” Parkinson described it as very different from traditional classes where “the teacher teaches and students respond.” “Here, we are all always bouncing ideas off one another.
“The first truth test was very stressful, especially as a group leader,” she said. “I think as the semester goes on, it will bump up to an ‘A’.”
-- Sabbaye McGriff
Photo by David Caselli